Stephanie Ellis’ Open Market at 1695 Northside Drive East opened the past two Saturdays, after being closed four months while Ellis tried to meet requirements pointed out by city staff members.
After Ellis spoke during a hearing on a proposed new temporary vendor ordinance June 2, Mayor Jan Moore and Statesboro City Council informally granted her permission to reopen. In fact, by their instructions to staff, the mayor and council are allowing all similar businesses to continue in operation for 90 days or until a new ordinance is adopted, and the $35 permit fee is waived.
“The proposal as it stands will not allow me to do business,” Ellis told the council.
Open only on Saturdays, Ellis Open Market is a flea market. Ellis charges vendors a $15 fee for spaces where they set up tables and sell their own items. It’s on land owned by her husband, Ronnie Ellis, and his father, Charles Ellis. No food is sold, she said, only things people would otherwise sell at a yard or garage sale. Ellis has 16 spaces available, but usually eight to 10 vendors turn out.
Talking to the council during the hearing, part of a regular council meeting, Ellis described her market as helping people who need to sell household items to pay their bills.
“Even though I have complied with everything I’ve been asked to do, I’ve been shut down since February,” Ellis said. “I have folks calling me every day (saying) ‘I need to pay my light bill,’ ‘I need to buy diapers for my baby, I need to buy formula.’ I need somebody to help me help them.”
The actions she had taken to comply included putting a disabilities-accessible portable toilet on the site and marking off 11 parking spaces on existing pavement, one for each 500 feet of measured retail space. One of the spaces is marked for handicapped parking.
Ellis also told the city officials that she would be represented in the future by her attorney, Scott Brannen.
The council identified several issues the city faces in regulating businesses that operate only some of the time, some that operate all of the time but which have no buildings, and others that are seasonal.
Three times a year
Under the draft ordinance, each location would have been limited to three temporary vendor permits a year, each for a consecutive period of no more than 30 days.
This would rule out businesses such as Ellis’, and also some seasonal businesses. At least one vendor sells pumpkins and then Christmas trees for several months in the fall.
Ellis intends to open about 45 Saturdays per year, skipping the coldest winter week, she said. So if a separate $35 were charged for each Saturday, her annual fees would total $1,575, far more than the licensing fees for most small, permanent businesses.
During the discussion, Mayor Jan Moore asked whether the $35 fee would apply to Ellis or to the vendors who rent spaces from her.
“Both, under this draft,” said city Planning and Development Director Mandi Cody.
“That’s not fair. They can’t afford that,” Ellis said.
After Ellis noted that a code enforcement officer had been dispatched to her market, Cody said was not because of permit requirements, but in response to complaints.
Senior Code Enforcement Officer Eric Short told the council he had been dispatched to Ellis’ market after complaints that her customers were attempting to use a neighboring business’s restrooms and argued when refused.
This was before Ellis placed the portable toilet.
Cody credited Ellis and her family for their efforts to comply and said the situation points to a need for clearer rules.
“She has done everything that we have asked her to do … and we appreciate that. …,” Cody said. “They are stuck in a very difficult position because the ordinances that we currently have don’t give enough guidance as to how we would permit things moving forward.”
The mayor and several council members observed that the city’s treatment of these businesses is inconsistent.
“Regardless of how it happened, the appearance is that we’re giving favoritism,” said Councilman Phil Boyum.
When council members began to talk about letting Ellis stay open, Moore said, “I caution council to remember where we were a year ago with Mr.Gerrald.”
For 15 months, the council extended L&D Produce owner David Gerrald special permission to operate a produce shop with a temporary building on a site he leased across Northside Drive East from Lowe’s.
When Gerrald and the property owner had not provided changes for highway access that the city and state required, the council withdrew its permission last July.
Council members also referred, by name and location, to Green Man’s Corner. Operated by Theo Lanier, known as the Green Man for selling greens in season, this currently consists of a canopy, a stack of firewood and tables on the parking lot of the now empty former McDonald’s on South Main Street.
Boiled peanuts, watermelons and some vegetables were sold there this week.
As Lanier confirmed in a phone call Friday, he rents the use of the lot from former city manager Frank Parker.
“Does the Green Man have a permit on Main Street?” Councilman Gary Lewis asked during the meeting.
Lanier has a permanent business license. City Clerk Sue Starling said he has held one since 1999. But Lanier has relocated his stand more than once.
“It could be seen that there is being given preferential treatment to that location, which I’m not saying is the case,” Councilman Travis Chance said, after referring to the property as the former city manager’s.
Green Man’s Corner does not provide a restroom. Lanier said city officials have never told him he needs one, and that customers go to the Gate station across the street.
Starling said that this business always received a license, “because it’s always been done that way and back in the conversations it was, because he used to have one, you just did it.”
“I don’t want to take away his right to earn a living, but at the same time, mayor, as you said, we’re picking and choosing,” Chance said. “It’s just as arbitrary as us saying, you can have one now and he can’t.”
Councilman Will Britt first suggested giving Ellis 60 days and waiving the fee.
“I have a hard time with her going and writing a check for $35 when we’ve got somebody else that’s there seven days a week,” Britt said
In further discussion, the 60 days was increased to 90. Moore said the city’s forbearance would apply to existing businesses, but not new ones.
The only vote council took was to end the hearing.
Ellis said she was pleased with the council’s response and that she and her attorney ill have suggestions for changes to the proposed ordinance.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.