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And then there were two

<p>Paul Hinterlong at a forum for City Council candidates hosted by The Naperville Homeowners Confederation at the Municipal Center in Naperville on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media</p>
Naperville City Councilman Grant Wehrli

Two local food vendors who dish up their wares from portable carts in downtown Naperville were given a head start this week on a happy and prosperous new year.

City Council members Tuesday night extended the current permits held by John Singleton Jr. of John’s Rib House and Joe Hornbaker, operator of Joey’s Red Hots, through 2014. Both had been scheduled to expire at the end of this month.

Although two other food purveyors were granted permits in spring 2012, for more than a year and a half John’s and Joey’s have been the only ones operating in the downtown. Singleton works in a spot on Chicago Avenue east of Washington Street, adjacent to the downtown parking garage. Hornbaker’s assigned location is a couple of blocks to the west, near the Riverwalk.

The much-discussed mobile vending program will remain with just the two food carts allowed in the downtown for now. Also, the necessary requests for qualifications, which solicit statements from bidders attesting to their fitness to receive a permit, will be issued every two years, rather than annually.

“We’ve been through this RFQ before, only two people took it, and it’s a lot of extra work on our staff,” said Councilman Paul Hinterlong, who called the issue “an ongoing headache” for city staff and proposed the guideline changes.

The Downtown Advisory Commission, which also has spent a lot of time talking about the matter, has been divided on whether to recommend continuation of the program. Some, particularly those with direct ties to downtown businesses, cite potential infringement on the customer base available to existing “brick and mortar” establishments. Others agree with a survey that found 84 percent of respondents consider the food carts an enhancement to the downtown’s ambiance.

Allison Laff, a planning operations manager for the city, said commission members have acknowledged the large amount of staff time demanded by the RFQ process, and she predicted that they would support the extension of the permits’ validity to two years. But Councilwoman Judith Brodhead, who is a commission member, didn’t think there would be consensus on that.

“It was not my impression that DAC really cared how much time staff was spending on it,” Brodhead said. “People who don’t like it don’t like it.”

Councilman Grant Wehrli stood firm in his opposition to continuing the program, saying he sees no benefit to the carts’ presence in the downtown before casting the sole council vote against extending the permits and the permitting process.

“The upside doesn’t (outweigh) the amount of work that we put into it, in my opinion,” he said.

Mayor A. George Pradel was among the majority of the council who disagreed.

“I love those carts because of the ambiance,” he said, directing his comments to Wehrli. “But I will tell you that you have a good point, because if we took all money we have spent (on staff time), we could buy everybody a hot dog in Naperville.”

Hinterlong also emphasized the protracted discussions around the subject, but additionally took issue with the claim that the carts cut substantially into the volume seen by the traditional restaurants.

“It doesn’t look like these guys are hurting” the brick and mortar establishments, Hinterlong said. “Either you’re in the mood for a hot dog or you’re in the mood for a steak at Sullivan’s or something.”

Councilman Bob Fieseler also agreed that the time to cut the conversation off had arrived.

“I don’t relish the amount of time we’ve spent on this, but we were in a pickle,” he said. “We needed to catch up to the reality of the situation, and I do think Councilman Hinterlong’s motion cuts the mustard, and frankly, we’re now on a roll, so let’s pass it.”

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