Arlington, Va.—Yesterday, the Institute for Justice asked a Fulton County Superior Court judge to protect two longtime Atlanta vendors from having their businesses destroyed by city officials. Less than two weeks before Christmas, Atlanta sent letters to all street vendors telling them that their existing vending locations will cease to exist at the end of the month. Beginning January 1, 2013, the only way for Atlanta vendors to earn a living is to seek and obtain permission from the government’s designated vending monopolist, the multi-billion-dollar Chicago corporation General Growth Properties (GGP).
In 2009, Atlanta handed over all vending on public property to GGP—the first time any American city has set up such a centralized scheme for vending. As the monopolist has moved into areas of the city, Atlanta officials have revoked the existing vendors’ permits and forced them to leave. The first phase of the program eliminated approximately 16 vibrant vending businesses along with dozens of self-supporting private sector jobs.
Vendors Larry Miller and Stanley Hambrick don’t want to be next. Both Miller and Hambrick own independent vending businesses that, for the past 25 years, have sold Braves hats, t-shirts, and memorabilia outside of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field. So when GGP said that phase two of its plans included the area around Turner Field, Miller and Hambrick knew they had to stand up for themselves, their fellow vendors, and the principle that everyone has the right to earn an honest living free from anticompetitive government restrictions. And so in July 2011, Miller and Hambrick joined with the Institute for Justice in filing suit against the city’s unconstitutional vending scheme.
In their lawsuit challenging the exclusive contract that Atlanta signed with GGP, Miller and Hambrick are taking on the city’s effort to establish a government-imposed monopoly over all vending on public property. In so doing, the city exceeded its authority and violated the Georgia Constitution, which expressly forbids government-created monopolies like this one.
Before the trial court, the city has said that it merely entered into a “management contract” and that GGP was only managing vending on the city’s behalf. But in a letter sent to vendors last Wednesday, the city was more forthright, telling vendors that GGP and GGP alone has “the right to conduct vending activities [on public property], including, without limitation, the right to subcontract to other vendors.” In other words, independent contractors who have peacefully and productively operated in Atlanta are thrown out of business unless they pay exorbitant rates to GGP and vend in the limited locations where GGP says they may vend. This arrangement is not merely a “management contract,” but a monopoly. A copy of the letter sent to Larry Miller and other vendors is available at www.ij.org/vending.
“Unless a judge intervenes in the next two weeks, Atlanta entrepreneurs will be left out in the cold,” said IJ attorney Robert Frommer, lead counsel in the lawsuit against the city. “We brought this case in order to protect the right of all vendors to earn an honest living. Given the dire circumstances these vendors are facing, we called on the court yesterday to protect that right while it works to reach a final decision in the case.”
Miller and Hambrick’s lawsuit has been fully briefed and argued, and the two are awaiting a final ruling, which they expect will be issued in the near future. Miller and Hambrick have previously asked the court to block the city from removing them from their longtime vending locations. But in January 2012, the court denied that request because the city had not formally announced its intention to deny vending licenses to Miller and Hambrick. The city’s letter from last week shows that that is no longer the case. Accordingly, the Institute for Justice has again asked the court to block the city’s actions and let Miller and Hambrick renew their vending permits so they can prepare for the upcoming baseball season. Should the court grant that request, its ruling will protect Miller and Hambrick until a final ruling is issued in the lawsuit.
“The city is trying to make it impossible for me to keep my business alive by not letting me renew my permit as I’ve done for years,” said Larry Miller. “Rather than wait until this lawsuit is complete, the city decided that right before Christmas was the perfect time to pull the rug out from underneath me and my fellow vendors. But the Georgia Constitution is on my side, and no matter what, I will keep fighting for my and every entrepreneur’s right to economic liberty.”
The lawsuit against Atlanta’s vending monopoly is part of IJ’s National Street Vending Initiative. For more on the lawsuit, visit www.ij.org/AtlantaVending. The Institute for Justice is the nation’s leading legal advocate for the rights of entrepreneurs. IJ is available on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.