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Md. high court spoils recipe for economic vibrancy

d-james-1Maryland food truck owner Joey Vanoni knows about pizza pies. As quickly as his customers can eat them, he can pull fresh ones out of the oven in his mobile kitchen, Pizza di Joey. More for one diner does not mean less for another.

Economic pies work the same way. There isn’t a fixed number of slices to dish out. Instead, innovation can make the pie bigger for everybody. Unfortunately, Maryland’s highest court thinks the only way one business can win is for another one to lose. So, in a misguided decision on Aug. 17, the panel of judges ruled that more choice at more venues for more people somehow means less “economic vibrancy” for Baltimore.

Specifically, the court upheld the city’s “300-foot rule,” which bans Vanoni and other food truck owners from operating within 300 feet of any brick-and-mortar restaurant, even when parked on private property with the owner’s permission. The notion that keeping away entry-level entrepreneurs serves a public interest turns logic on its head.

People like Vanoni are not a threat to Baltimore’s vitality. They are the best hope for the city as it rebuilds from COVID-19. Vanoni’s success, despite government efforts to chase him out of town, shows what can happen when people with limited access to capital find a foothold to lift themselves up.

After serving in Afghanistan with the Navy, Vanoni decided to bring authentic New York-style pizza to Baltimore. He lacked funds to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant immediately, so he started with a less expensive food truck in 2014. Things went well until a police officer accused him of violating the 300-foot rule.

Rather than quit, Vanoni partnered with the nonprofit Institute for Justice and challenged the protectionist policy in 2016. Fearful of violating the 300-foot rule, Vanoni shifted his operations to Anne Arundel County, which gives street vendors more freedom.

Eventually, Vanoni saved enough to open a brick-and-mortar Pizza di Joey in the Cross Street Market. Now, instead of just employing himself, he creates jobs for others. That is the definition of vibrancy.

Sadly, similar success stories might never happen, thanks to the recent ruling. People with big dreams and little capital will look down the road and see a dead end.

Protecting privilege

To reach its flawed conclusion, the court had to swallow the argument that brick-and-mortar restaurateurs somehow deserve special government favors because they have funds to become “semi-permanent members of the neighborhoods in which they are based.”

Talk about protecting privilege. The elitist policy literally creates a two-tier system that puts landowners in one category and everyone else in another. Immigrants and people of color are disproportionately excluded.

The protectionism might be tolerable if it didn’t actually deliver the opposite results of what it promises. Enforcing a 300-foot rule does not add vibrancy, it kills it.

Baltimore officials justify the interference by alleging that food trucks siphon business from brick-and-mortar restaurants — as if there were only so many customers to go around. But a 2017 analysis from The Economist shows that restaurants need not fear the culinary competition. As food trucks roll into an area, brick-and-mortar establishments also increase.

Institute for Justice research confirms that foot traffic and overall sales go up with competition from mobile vendors, expanding the pie for everyone. The evidence is not just theoretical. Anyone who drives 40 miles south to Washington, D.C., can see the principle in practice. The District has no 300-foot rule or even a 30-foot rule. Brick-and-mortar restaurants must compete side-by-side with food trucks, which works to everyone’s advantage.

Professionals who might otherwise stay in their cubicles eating peanut butter sandwiches come outside for lunch. Tourists who might otherwise ignore their hunger reach for their wallets. Lively street scenes result.

Sometimes less is more, but not when it comes to pizza. And not when it comes to economic activity. Pies can expand and multiply, providing enough for everyone. But first, city officials must get out of the way and let people start their ovens.

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia.