Street vendors, store owners reach compromise

A potential clash between downtown Franklin merchants and street vendors was headed off the pass this week.

For years, street vendors have been peddling food and sodas to the large crowds converging downtown every Saturday for the popular Pickin’ on the Square music series. But store owners recently complained that the street vendors were discouraging foot traffic from migrating beyond the square to patronize the rest of Main Street.

For years, most merchants weren’t interested in staying open late on Saturdays. Street vendors selling hot dogs, ice cream, cotton candy and Philly cheese steaks cropped up to fill the void. That was years ago, however, and now merchants want in on the action.

Merchants appeared before the Franklin town board last week to voice their concerns.

The merchants’ primary concern was not so much with the vendors, but how they stationed themselves. Large trailers and trucks set up on the perimeter of the square effectively cordoned off the crowds from the rest of Main Street

One long-time vendor in particular with a large operation blocked the view of Main Street storefronts from the crowd. Mayor Joe Collins and Alderman Bob Scott floated the idea of relocating that particular vendor to a new spot, and it quickly gained traction.

“When we boiled down the issue, it was a line of sight issue,” Scott said of his discussions with all parties involved.

The town agreed to mediate a meeting between merchants and street vendors at the site of Pickin’ on the Square on Monday evening. When Scott and Collins announced the idea that had been percolating in recent days, it was well received.

“The thought process was when you look that way, you don’t see past the stand,” Mayor Joe Collins said, pointing toward Main Street from the square. “We are moving (the vendors) around so there’s not that barrier.”

The town board will still have to officially vote on the solution next week, but it will likely be approved.

“I think it’s a good compromise,” said June Hernandez, owner of Primrose Lane and president of the Streets of Franklin. “This is all we the merchants were asking for. We aren’t trying to get rid of the vendors.”

Scott was proud the community could work together for a solution.

“This was participatory government in action,” Scott said.

Scott said Pickin’ on the Square has become an institution in Franklin.

“I can’t imagine Franklin without it anymore. It’s what I describe as down-home America 50 years ago,” Scott said. People chat, socialize, dance and listen to music as a community.

“There are no strangers at Pickin’,” Scott said.

While Pickin’ on the Square attracts more than 1,000 people some Saturday nights, Betty Merrill, who helped start the series in 1992, remembers its early days. They set up a small 10-foot-by-10-foot tent in front of the courthouse and hung a light from cord strung out of a third-floor window on the courthouse.

When it rained, they forged on, convinced if they appeared consistently every Saturday the event would catch on. It did. They grew the crowd to 50 by the end of the first year, and by the end of the second year it was up to 200 to 300.

“We had so many that came there was a joke that went around town. People would say, ‘I heard they are moving the courthouse to make room for Pickin’,’” Merrill recalled.

Downtown revitalization and drawing in foot traffic for merchants was one of the original intentions of Pickin’ on the Square, said Merrill.

“The punch line is the merchants didn’t stay open,” she said. “For years we urged the merchants to join in and they didn’t. A few did, but the majority wouldn’t stay open. Now some are considering staying open but they want the vendors to step aside.”

Walter Coggins, who runs a concession stand as a fundraiser for the local Shriners Club, questioned whether people will actually wander off down Main Street to shop. Most are there to see their friends and hear the music, he said.

“I think if something is right handy that’s as far as they’d go,” Coggins said. “They can still hear everything and not have to go too far.”

Coggins recalls in the early years when Peoples stayed open an hour later, but the only time they got people in the store was when it rained and everyone ran for cover.

Hernandez is one of the few storeowners downtown who stays open late. Hernandez said she doesn’t judge the benefit solely by the sales she makes that night, as many people will come back the following week after browsing on Saturday night.

“It is always worth staying open Saturday night,” Hernandez said.

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