Local Politics

Maine Food Trucks Face Uphill Battle After Being Moved to a Lower Parking Lot

If you’re a Portland local, you’ve likely seen or visited the informal food truck park near East End beach. For several years, Portland food trucks have parked along Eastern Promenade Road, which sits on a hill directly above the public park. The food trucks are beloved by many and bring a variety of cuisines to Portland locals at a fraction of the cost of sit-in options. 

That’s why it caught my attention earlier this summer when on June 1st, the City of Portland decided to relocate the trucks to a parking area down the hill– the Cutter Street lot–as part of a pilot program that addresses different complaints from residents on Eastern Promenade Road. I soon learned that this “pilot program” had not been voted upon by the city council, and locals seemed increasingly upset as a petition with 5,000+ signatures not to move the trucks began to surface on my social feeds. There seemed to be so many unanswered questions– why were there more signatures against moving the trucks than complaints about the trucks? Should the trucks be allowed to stay on Eastern Promenade Road, or were there legitimate reasons for the City Manager to move them? 

To find a resolution to these questions, I decided to create a short documentary on the topic. First, I sat down with different owners of food trucks that had parked along Eastern Promenade Road for several years before the city announced the relocation. They told me how the area had become a recognized spot for families to socialize and spend a low-cost day together downtown. 

As Marissa Lewiecki, co-owner of Mr. Tuna restaurant and food truck put it, “We get a lot of families… they bring their kids out, who make a day out of it. They’ll come to get food at the food trucks, then head over to the playground.” Her partner, Jordan Rubin, added, “The food trucks in this city are great–there’s tons of variety. Lots of hard working small businesses.”

On top of building a community among locals, many food truck owners assert they’ve made a community amongst themselves and coordinate on schedules, food or festival collaborations, and the city’s constantly changing regulations on where the food trucks can operate their business. 

They did precisely that after the city announced its plan to launch the pilot program. They first sat through a Zoom meeting where, as co-owner of Falafel Mafia Dylan Gardner put it, “there was a colorful lottery wheel that looked very Wheel of Fortune-esque. They put the truck’s names on it, pressed a button, and it spun around”. Gardner finished by saying it was “one of the most terrifying moments of my life.”

Food truck owners told me that all fourteen names that had applied for the Cutter Street lot permit were on the digital wheel to start, and each time a name got selected, the number of business names on the pinwheel would decrease. Of the fourteen applicants, four were denied permits. As Rubin put it, “There was four left–and we were one of them. So we didn’t get picked, and that meant we weren’t allowed to park in the Cutter St lot. Or here, on Eastern Promenade Road, for that matter”.

Garrett Chamlin, co-owner of Eighty-8 Donut cafe and food truck, was one of four not selected. When we sat down, he commented on how the community unified after the drawing. He said, “Immediately after the lottery, we began talking–Jordan at Mr. Tuna, myself, and the brothers at Falafel Mafia–about putting a protest together. Then it branched out, and people in the food truck community were popping messages back and forth.”

The protest was held in Monument Square on June 15th; the day selected trucks were supposed to move from Eastern Promenade Road to the lower lot. Dozens of locals participated, and the upset resulted in the City Manager allowing all fourteen trucks to park in the lower lot for the duration of the summer. 

A still from a live video captured at the protest

However, this “compromise” was also met with critique. Many questioned what gave an unelected official the right to decide on a community issue. As Gardner put it, “No one should ever decide how our parks and city should look based solely on their opinion…I feel the same way about the City Manager’s decision. They didn’t mitigate trash, and they didn’t reduce pollution–they just moved the problems away from the people who didn’t want to look at them. It tells me that the trash and pollution were not the core problems–the problem was the image of the food truck. And that’s really sad for me”.

Others worried about accessibility issues, as the food trucks’ customer base includes children and elderly community members who cannot easily navigate their way up and down the hill with still-limited parking. Many feel that the City Manager’s decision was politically motivated, with Rubin stating, “The city’s reasoning for moving us down there was public comment at a city council meeting. It was really ten or fifteen homeowners commenting at that meeting– it was definitely not representative of the pulse of Portland residents.”

But what complaints during public comment had been so moving to justify the relocation of the trucks? I listened to a recording of the hearing, which took place on April 24th, 2022. One comment, in particular, summarized the two hours of public comment well. It came from a community member who identified as a homeowner on Eastern Promenade Road.

He said, ” I love having the food trucks, but they need a dedicated food truck park…that needs to not be on the Eastern Prom. The Eastern Prom is a residential area with a public park–yet commercial businesses are allowed to run there without paying the type of property tax or rent that a waterview commercial business normally would have to pay…imagine you’re paying the rent or property tax that a waterview comes with, but you can’t use your front porch to have a conversation because nobody can hear you. You can’t leave your windows open in the summer; it is just unimaginable”.

Since the move, trucks have reported a steep decline in business–some reporting an up to 40% decrease in daily sales. While the City Manager recently communicated that she wants to hear from community members and business owners on the issue now, many are frustrated by how the City Manager has approached constructive conversations thus far. 

As Logan Abbey, owner of George’s North Shore food truck, put it, “I mean, the right way to communicate would be for all of us to pick a date–for them to contact all of us, not just email but via phone, and say, we’re going to have a meeting. Let’s come up with a solution; we’ll sit down and spitball ideas and find a solution that works for everyone.”

As the 2022 food truck season comes to a close, there’s no doubt this is an issue that’ll resurface until a resolution is reached. While the city has not released any official plans for next year regarding the pilot program, Andrew Zarro, District Four City Councilor, hopes the issue will be revisited for a vote in the fall. 

If you’re interested in this issue, the following short documentary illuminates all sides of the story in greater depth than this article. You can also watch on Youtube here.

Categories: Local Politics

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