Greensboro park dispute echoes 2018 Europa one
“I don’t know if you all have seen the ‘blow up’ about the cart fees the Parks are charging,” wrote District 5 Representative Tammi Thurm in a June 11 email to Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, City Manager David Parrish, Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson and District 3 Representative Justin Outling.
Thurm was referring to a much-shared post on the Greater Greensboro Politics Facebook page, which asked why longtime downtown vendor Moe Abbaszadah, owner of Moe’s Hotdogs and Italian Ice, had moved his carts from the Elm Street sidewalk beside Center City Park to the diagonally opposite corner in front of Lincoln Financial.
David McLean, one of the page’s administrators, posted that Abbaszadah said he’d moved because Greensboro Downtown Parks, Inc., the private-public partnership that oversees both Center City Park and LeBauer Park, wanted to charge him $50 a day for his former spot just outside the park boundary.
On June, 11, the same day Thurm warned of a possible social media “blow up,” I called GDPI executive director Rob Overman. He said I was the fourth journalist to contact him about the Facebook thread. So far, the only reportage has been the WFMY News 2 story “Lifelong Greensboro street vendor moving because of fees.”
Although that broadcast claimed, “Moe’s hot dog cart will no longer sell hot dogs at Center City Park,” that’s not entirely true. Over the two weekends (and on one weekday) since the WFMY report, the carts have sometimes been on the East side of Center City Park just across Davie from Café Europa. When there, according to both Overman and Abbaszadah, the latter pays GDPI $50, meaning $25 per cart. But for much of the last two weeks, Abbaszadah has moved them to the Liberty Mutual sidewalk. There, his daughter Sheila told me, “the business has not been as good, but we don’t have to pay.”
Whether (or when) GDPI wanted Abbaszadah to pay $50 or $25 for his earlier location beside the park on Elm Street remains unclear.
“There’s a bit of a misunderstanding on Moe’s side of things,” Overman said. “He has always paid $25 a day to have his cart in the park. Now, he added a second cart. We didn’t do anything about it until the beginning of this season. I approached and said we had to formalize something, because in years past there’s some confusion surrounding it, on the part of his folks and my staff.”
Overman said that had been given Abbaszadah a special rate “because he was downtown long before we took over the parks.” Before GDPI, Abbaszadah paid $150 annually for his vendor privilege license and pushcart permit, but no daily fees.
“Normally, adding a second cart would mean paying $50 a day, but I told him if he stays in the same area he’s traditionally been in, I’ll meet him halfway. I have a contract that we both signed explicitly stating that if he stays there, he can have both carts for $25. Where the $50 comes in is if he wanted to move closer into the park, or over to LeBauer.”
When I asked to see a copy of his contract with Abbaszadah, Overman said, “I’m sorry, but because we’re a private 501 (c)(3), we’re not required to make those documents public.”
I asked Overman about the justification for charging a vendor a fee to be in a spot, that according to the aerial photo at the Guilford County GIS site, is not inside Center City Park.
Overman acknowledged that the city had given his organization nothing in writing granting authority over the brick sidewalk beside the park’s boundary line on the 200-block of North Elm Street, but said it was necessary to manage the space effectively.
“What we run into with that arbitrary line is that our security guards are still maintaining that space, our staff is maintaining and cleaning that space, our contracted landscaping company, they maintain that space as well. So, it made sense to go ahead and include that space in the area we were already managing. That was done just as a decision to try and be better at managing these spaces. But that is certainly a gray area if you will.”
He also said that Abbaszadah had been using “the park’s electricity.” When I pointed out that the outlet used by the vendor was also outside the park’s boundary, he replied, “Yes, but it’s still on our grid.”
That evening, I called Abbaszadah, who stated he had moved across Friendly because “Rob, the manager of the park,” said “he would have to charge me $50, because of the trash we make and electricity we use.” In a subsequent conversation in front of Lincoln Financial, he said, “Yes, he now says we can be on the Elm Street sidewalk for $25. I think that’s too much on a rainy day like this, but on a busy day, I may pay Rob $50 to be between parks.”
On June 14, when speaking to Mayor Vaughan about another matter, I asked about Overman’s statement that contracts with vendors were not public documents. “I’m not sure I agree with that,” she said. Later, she texted to suggested I set up a time to go by Overman’s office in the cultural center and see his contract.
When I called him, he said that he couldn’t give me a copy of the contract, but was happy to have me view it. When I visited his office on June 17, he showed me a typed document signed by Abbaszadah on May 2, 2019, and bearing a handwritten notation that the latter would pay $25 for both carts when on Elm Street, but $25 for each when inside the park. “If between 2 parks, price varies depending on event.”
Leaving the GDPI office, I saw Sheila Abbaszadah, who was operating both carts on the Western edge of Center City Park, just across from Café Europa. She said that her family had paid GPDI $50 for that day.
She also claimed that Overman originally wanted to charge her father that same rate to be on the Elm Street side of Center City Park. “But then he said we could have both carts there for $25 and made my dad sign a contract.”
While (unlike her father) a native English speaker, Sheila Abbaszadah, who told me she is 16, did not claim to have been present at the negotiations.
For now, the Abbaszadah family and GDPI seem to have reached an understanding. But Roch Smith, owner of the blog Greensboro 101, said the question of GDPI’s authority over the sidewalk and its director’s claim that the contract is not public information both point to a larger and ongoing issue. In a 2017 article for YES! Weekly, Smith criticized what he described a lack of transparency in the city’s relationship with public-private nonprofits, such as GDPI.
Recent correspondence among city officials, obtained via a public records request, suggests that some of them are aware of this potential concern. In her June 11 email, Councilwoman Thurm wrote, “I suspect this is going to blow up in our faces as the park overstepping their boundaries.”
Thurm also referenced the earlier controversy over assistant city manager Chris Wilson transferring ownership of Café Europa to GDPI.
The possibility of the popular downtown restaurant losing its space resulted in crowds of Europa supporters denouncing council members at town hall meetings in early January, February, and March of 2018. (Despite claims by some council members that only those protesting the Greensboro Police Department’s fatal hogtying of Marcus Smith have not been “civil,” there’s actually a long history of a wide variety of Greensboro citizens “shouting” during town hall meetings.) As this writer reported at the time, a perceived lack of transparency on the part of GDPI was a factor in the controversy.
Thurm concluded her email to the mayor, city managers and Outling with, “I am hoping that I am overly concerned about all this, but based on the brouhaha that surrounded Café Europa, I wanted to make sure that we were prepared.”
This vendor cart dispute seems settled and unlikely to inspire such controversy, but questions remain. The Memorandum of Understanding between the city and GDPI does not grant DGPI authority to charge vendors for access to the sidewalks around the parks. Instead, it specifically grants that authority only for “spaces within the park.”