Ann Arbor Interim City Administrator Ron Olson’s decision to deny street vendors sidewalk space during the annual Hash Bash will hurt local businesses and the community as a whole.

The city argues that street vendors, even those already licensed, cannot set up for the one-day event because so many people will be in town that the sidewalks will become too congested. This argument is a case of the city government making a large, irrational change in order to correct what is a small problem.

Vendors have set up along State Street and surrounded the Diag for years without problem. While thousands of people show up for the annual event, they are for the most part well-behaved and therefore the semi-crowded sidewalks pose no threat to the community. A few street vendors do not significantly add to the crowding, while, at the same time, provide a large part of the attraction for visitors.

Crowded streets are manageable in better ways than banning outdoor sales. Ann Arbor embraces a very similar event – the Art Fair. The city clearly supports the Art Fair and even goes so far as to shut down State Street and open it only for foot traffic. Local businesses and artists ply their wares and the city acknowledges the economic benefits of the event. So too should Ann Arbor realize the profits that local businesses and others make during Hash Bash, which ushers in the spring shopping season.

Since the impact of Hash Bash so closely mirrors that of the Art Fair on the community, some speculate that the real reason the city is cracking down on vendors has less to do with safety and more to do with the message Hash Bash sends. Accusations that Ann Arbor and the University try to end traditions that some think tarnish their image (e.g. the Naked Mile) are not necessarily far off the mark. However, ending or reducing the scope of Hash Bash will only paint the city as an unfriendly, overly-regulated area.

Ann Arbor’s city officials should realize that Hash Bash is an event that draws thousands each year and can be a huge windfall for the city. It is a festival (ignoring its politics) just like any other and should be treated as such. The city needs to find a way to accommodate the street vendors and allow local businesses to make the most of this springtime tradition.

That the Hash Bash has existed for 30 years is a testament to the local community’s open-mindedness and its acceptance of marijuana. Just as marijuana is harmless and should be legalized, so too is Hash Bash a harmless celebration that depends on local vendors to make it a complete event. By outlawing vendors, city officials hurt visitors, local businesses, their own tax revenue and the appeal of this community.

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