Commissioner Leonard Steps Up Portland’s War on Fun

Portland is known primarily as a cool city, where people spend their 20s happily working in the service sector, drinking craft beer, eating organic food, and exploring a variety of unconventional lifestyle options. In short, Portland is weird. That’s not just an observation: it’s the city’s marketing strategy. Keep Portland Weird is a pretty common bumper sticker in the city (believe it or not, there are cars in Portland). Yet despite the non-conformist attitude of Portlanders, the municipal government seems bent on destroying everything fun about the city.

The first attack, which I documented in Reason Magazine, is on craft beer, the city’s primary cultural export. The city attempted to increase the tax on beer producers several fold, though the motion was soundly defeated. It was the only time I’ve ever seen hippies handing out anti-tax fliers in bars on Friday nights. This was followed up by an EPA mandated tampering of the water supply, which may or may not reduce the quality of the world beer capital’s unparalleled beer.

The second attack is on street vendors. Portland has some of the most liberal rules regarding street vendors. You can find anything from Mexican to Thai food in the nearly 600 Portland street carts. This is one of the things that make the city charming. Street vendors add to the street life of the city. Yet this summer, a story about a little girl having her unlicensed lemonade stand shut down drew international attention. Now City Commissioner Randy Leonard is openly discussing a city wide crackdown on food vendors. The complaint? Many of them are guilty of attaching unlicensed appendages such as awnings and decks.

Where are the complaints originating from? You guessed it: local restaurants. They claim that street vendors are providing unfair competition, since they don’t have to provide restrooms, be wheelchair accessible, and so forth. This has so alarmed the Commissioner that he’s instructed building inspectors to assign top priority to inspecting street vendors. Ironically, this debate completely ignores the most legitimate question: are street vendors actually hurting anyone? Is their safety record worse than local restaurants? Are they blocking off public sidewalks? The answer to the first question isn’t clear, since the inspection reports aren’t reported in the same way they are for restaurants. Having said that, the health inspectors would shut them down if there were egregious violations. The second question is easier. They aren’t unduly encroaching on sidewalks. If anything, they’re providing sidewalk dwellers shelter from the rain with their unlicensed awnings.

Quirky things like world class craft beer and street vendors are what make Portland interesting. If the city is going to market itself as a destination for the creative class, it is going to have to stop cracking down on the very things that attract these people in the first place. After all, they sure aren’t moving to Portland because of the local economy.

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