Weinergate: Chamber of Commerce received 'pushback' on food stand project

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WILMINGTON — A food stand is no longer in hotdog water with local business owners who wanted a permit application denied.

That's because it is no longer up for review.

"I've heard a lot of people say Wilmington is business unfriendly. Well congratulations, Wilmington. You just proved it," said Vince Rice, who was hoping to sell hotdogs in an empty parking space at the Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley Chamber of Commerce this summer. "I think it's funny all these businesses are afraid of a little hotdog cart. But apparently they are."

The chamber has withdrawn an application for a conditional use permit, which is required by the town. Sharon Cunningham, executive director of the chamber, said the biggest concerns involved traffic flow and parking.

"We got pushback from members and also other downtown businesses," she said. "Quite honestly, it all started when we were trying to make it feel more vibrant by the chamber to give people more reason to come in and talk about the amazing things going on in the village and valley. We're kind of bummed."

Rice said he heard there were other concerns about having a "trashy trailer" on Main Street and that the cart would "wreck" downtown Wilmington.

"That's completely wrong," he said while also dismissing traffic safety and congestion issues. "The other chamber members and local businesses have basically applied extortion and what I consider bullying to the chamber to get them to withdraw their permission to be there."

Cunningham said no one had mentioned dropping their chamber membership over the issue to her.

Last week, a Development Review Board hearing was cancelled due to a lack of quorum. Many meeting attendees came out to oppose the project. Zoning Administrator Craig Ohlson previously told the Reformer he had not been anticipating the "fire storm" behind the permit request.

The story begins with Rice sitting with chamber officials one day. Siting his food cart at the chamber came up in conversation, he said.

"The idea was that it would give me an opportunity to have a little bit of a change," he said. "The hope was to draw people into the chamber. They'd have more people coming in to get information about the chamber and other businesses so it would kind of help us all."

Soon, Rice was receiving what he called "significant resistance" and opposition to the project. He had heard people were concerned that he was getting special treatment since he is on the Select Board. But he said anyone could have done what he was proposing if they had wanted to.

The chamber's board approved of the project, Cunningham said, not thinking it was going to "get blown out of the water as much as it did."

"It was about attracting foot traffic," she said. "I think we've learned a lot. I still think we'll be looking for ways — whether that's picnic tables or chairs — to make it more inviting to get more people in here."

Rice, who has since moved his trailer out of the chamber's parking lot, said he feels it is a little late in the season to start looking at a different location. He previously had his stand set up at True Value on Route 9 before Family Dollar replaced it. He then ran the business near the intersection of Route 9 and Route 100 South.

Finding a new spot would entail a rental agreement, reliable power supply and DRB approval.

"Considering that volunteerism is down, you don't necessarily have enough members for any given board to always come up with a quorum, which was the problem last time," said Rice, who knows about this issue, having served on the Planning Commission before the Select Board. "A person showed up 20 minutes after 6 (p.m.) even though they were supposed to be there at 5. So there's a lot of jumps and hurdles to go through."

The next DRB meeting is scheduled for July 5. The statutory timeline, which allows the board 45 days to issue a decision and a 30-day appeal period, would limit the food stand's operations for this summer.

Based on permitting criteria, Ohlson and Rice were not expecting the town to deny the permit. Rice said he thought the food stand could have brought in more clientele to nearby businesses.

But now he's unsure of whether he will open again in Wilmington.

"It really didn't have to be that way," said Rice. "It could have been easy for everybody. But that's the way it goes."

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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