A Civic Project story
INDIANA — On a summer evening in July 2004, John A. Minda visited his sick wife at Latrobe Hospital to show her his newly minted transient vendor license from the Indiana borough.
She took the license into her hand and smiled, Minda said. A short time later, she fell asleep and never woke up.
After his wife’s death, Minda, 66, of Saltsburg, told himself that he wasn’t going back to work as an investigator for the Department of Aging offices in Westmoreland and Butler counties. He planned to start working as a hot dog vendor in downtown Indiana.
Minda, now known as “Hot Dog John,” said in an Oct. 24 interview at a Philadelphia Street eatery that he has become an icon downtown. He said he supports reading programs at the library in which he gives free hot dogs to the kids. Minda also adds personal touches, like writing kids’ names on their hot dogs in ketchup after they come out of the library.
In fall 2012, eight years after Minda began selling hot dogs, changes in the transient vendor ordinance, unanimously adopted Dec. 10 by the Indiana borough council, have put restrictions on him and other vendors selling their wares on public sidewalks or along public streets in the borough.
Under the revised measure, vendors may operate from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 17 locations, most of them along Philadelphia Street between Fifth and 10th streets, with a couple along Oakland Avenue. (View map of downtown Indiana, Pa.)
Council members passed the ordinance following complaints from downtown restaurants that wanted to prohibit transient food vendors from selling on public property. Restaurant owners said vendors unfairly take business away from those who pay taxes and support the community.
Boroughs that host other western Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities have not experienced transient-vendor licensing problems like those of Indiana borough.
Romeo’s Pizza owner Mary Beth Akbay, 49, said at the Oct. 16 Indiana borough council meeting that she has seen a slight decrease in business at her restaurant between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. because of vendors who are selling to Indiana University of Pennsylvania students.
“We feel that transient vendors can be a beautiful thing in the right city and the right location,” Akbay said. “We don’t feel that we’re ready for it here in Indiana.”
Transient vendors don’t give back to the Indiana community because they don’t employ teenagers like other local businesses do, Akbay said.
One resident, however, was quick to come to the defense of Minda and other vendors.
“John Minda has added a lot to this town,” Indiana borough resident Carol A. Ellsmore, 74, said at the Oct. 16 meeting. “He’s everybody’s friend.”
Ellsmore also disagreed with Akbay’s opinion that Minda unfairly takes away business from local restaurants like Romeo’s.
“This is a free country,” Ellsmore said. “This is free enterprise. He’s not taking business away from anybody. That’s a bunch of crap.”
MINDA STARTED selling hot dogs in August 2004. On his first day, he sold 90 hot dogs by 12:23 p.m., he said. Now, when he works in good weather, he averages about 50 hot dogs a day at $1.25 apiece. He wondered how his gross profit of $62.50 a day poses a threat to established brick-and-mortar dining venues.
“People have blamed me for years,” he said. “But my business has gone down just as theirs has.”
Minda said unemployment, not competition from food carts, is a likely culprit if business is bad at downtown eateries. Unemployment has increased in the area — to 6.8 percent in October 2012 from 6.3 percent one year earlier, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because of that, fewer people are coming into the borough to patronize local restaurants, he concluded.
“Council needs to find a way to get jobs back into town and quit making me famous,” Minda said in the Oct. 24 interview.
But while some local businesses blame vendors for loss of revenues, data suggest that the local business environment is booming compared to other areas.
In Indiana County, sales tax revenue — a barometer of economic activity — has increased since July 1, 2006, according to the Statistical Supplements for the Pennsylvania Tax Compendium found on the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue website. Sales-tax revenues collected countywide rose to $22.4 million in the 2011-2012 fiscal year, up from $19.2 million in fiscal year 2006-2007, a 16.7 percent increase.
Indiana County’s sales-tax-revenue growth has been greater than the state average during the last six years. By comparison, statewide sales-tax collections increased to $8.8 billion in the 2011-2012 fiscal year from $8.6 billion in the 2006-2007 fiscal year, a 2.3 percent increase — and a fraction of the growth in Indiana County’s collections.
INDIANA BOROUGH council is not trying to get rid of vendors such as Minda, council President Nancy Jones said at the Oct. 16 meeting. Council only sought to be consistent and non-discriminatory in drafting the ordinance for vendors with carts, trailers and trucks.
Minda doesn’t operate late at night and doesn’t have a big cart or trailer. But he will be affected by the new ordinance, which sets the fees, the times and the locations for sidewalk and street vendors, Broad said. His license now will cost $360 per year, up from $200 per year, an 80 percent hike.
No restrictions were placed on vendors operating on private property.
“The ordinance permits vending on private property without a permit or license,” Indiana borough manager William C. Sutton said in a Nov. 30 email. “Private property vendors would be subject to zoning regulations as enforced by the Code Dept.”
Council was split on the provisions of the ordinance, Sutton said. In fact, some council members wanted to prohibit vending on public property.
However, the council would need a reason for prohibiting vendors that could hold up in court, solicitor Wayne A. Kablack said at the Oct. 16 council meeting. And council probably wouldn’t win in a court case.
Council then agreed to draft the new ordinance putting restrictions on vendors without prohibiting them.
“After some back and forth, we all agreed to the final language, which didn’t really meet anyone’s exact wishes but which we could all live with,” councilman Broad said in a Nov. 28 email.
Minda has renewed his license for 2013 and will continue to sell hot dogs in the borough, said Nichole Sipos of the Indiana borough office in a Nov. 29 telephone interview.
Minda said doesn’t consider the new ordinance to be a win, he said, but rather an opportunity to continue selling hot dogs.
“I am happy with the outcome, but others might not be happy with the time restriction,” he said in a Dec. 17 email.
If the borough were to take away his license someday, he would stop selling hot dogs.
“I wouldn’t sell hot dogs again for the same reason I didn’t replace my wife,” Minda said. “I had a good eight years and a good 36 years with my wife. I don’t want to start over.”
Abbey Zelko, a junior majoring in journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Harrisburg.
Aleda Johnson, a junior majoring in journalism and communications media at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from East Stroudsburg.
Video: John Minda on ‘Hot Dog John’
View John Minda describing his evolution from retiree to hot-dog vendor to community institution in this two-minute street-corner interview by reporter Charlene Adams:
Sidebar: Vending in other PaSSHE college towns
Boroughs that host other western Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities have not experienced transient-vendor licensing problems
“We had a very smart solicitor here for many years, and we have a lot of ordinances, just in case this or that happens,” Hall said.
Clarion ordinances make it nearly impossible to obtain such a permit, he added.
“It probably wouldn’t get approved because they would not be able to sell items from sidewalks because that is against the ordinance,” Hall said. “If they had a truck to sell out of, they also would have to go through the permit process, and that also would most likely be declined, too.”
Students in Clarion either eat on campus, at downtown restaurants or at the mall, he said.
Clarion does permit vendors on private property, but they must apply for a permit. One day costs $50, 6 months costs $150 and a year costs $200. Clarion does not have any vendors on private property because people don’t want to pay the permit fee, Hall said.
The Borough of Edinboro, another PaSSHE university town located north of Indiana, has not experienced a problem with vendors because it does not permit them on public property either.
“We do permit vendors to set up on private property,” borough manager Taras J. Jemetz said in an Oct. 23 email. “We did have one vendor set up on a vacant lot, with the permission of the property owner. But none of the local businesses complained to me about that vending business.”
Slippery Rock borough, located northwest of Indiana, allows vendors on both public and private property. But vendors are usually temporary, and none are currently set up in the borough, Slippery Rock building code official Robert Koch said in a Nov. 13 email.
California borough, located southwest of Indiana, does not have problems with vendors either. But it does permit them. It hosts only one small hot dog stand at a local car wash, said Shannon Kratzer, a California borough zoning/code enforcement officer, in an Oct. 24 email.
“Local eateries continue to flourish, and new ones are being built,” Kratzer said. “If a vendor was to obtain a permit, it would go through our police, and be valid for one year.”
Sidebar: Sales tax revenues, county v. state
Some arguments against sidewalk vendors in Indiana, Pa., have been based on economic grounds — that vendors hurt local brick-and-mortar businesses during tough economic times. However, sales tax collections — a rough gauge of economic activity — suggest that Indiana County is doing better than the statewide average in sales tax revenues.
Fiscal year Indiana County Percent +/- Pennsylvania Percent+/-
2006-07 $19.2 million —– $8.6 billion —–
2007-08 $19.7 million +2.6 $8.5 billion -1.1
2008-09 $19.4 million -1.4 $8.1 billion -4.2
2009-10 $19.0 million -2.1 $8.0 billion -1.3
2010-11 $21.8 million +14.6 $8.6 billion +7.0
2011-12 $22.4 million +2.7 $8.8 billion +2.1
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Revenue
Sidebar: For more information
For more information about this story, or to get involved in borough vendor licensing issues, contact the following sources:
Pennsylvania Department of Revenue
Sidebar: To get involved
Indiana Borough Council
Nancy Jones, President
Meetings are scheduled at 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month in the basement of the municipal building:
80 N. Eighth St.
Indiana, Pennsylvania 15701
Phone: (724) 465-6691
Downtown Indiana Inc.
39 N. Seventh St.
Indiana, PA 15701
Phone: (724) 463-6110