Vendors sue city over denied licenses to sell food, goods near Little Caesars Arena

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Ryan Williams spent close to a decade selling peanuts and bottled water as a street vendor near Detroit's sporting venues for extra cash and to help pay his way through law school.

But when Little Caesars Arena opened on Woodward Avenue in 2017, Williams and other long-time vendors were denied renewal of their annual licenses "without a legally justifiable reason," according to a federal lawsuit filed against the city Wednesday. 

A lawsuit by vendors complains that the city refused to renew their licenses to sell food and trinkets near downtown sports venues since construction began on Little Caesars Arena more than two years ago.

Williams and co-plaintiffs Tracie Hannah and Cheryl Robinson claim the city concocted "false excuses" to deny licenses for the spots they'd held each year in violation of their constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. 

"It stinks to high heaven," said Williams of Detroit, who filed the lawsuit. "They just cut everybody off. It's almost like they just swept us under the rug." 

The complaint notes that the vendors sold food and trinkets annually near the city's downtown sports venues since as early as 2008 before the city refused to renew their licenses as construction began and two years ago, when the new arena opened. 

The plaintiffs say that part of the reasoning given for the license denial was that they were in an "unsafe area, after being in those same locations previously for more than seven years."

The suit claims the city used an "arbitrary" 300 foot distance threshold from the venue "as an excuse" to deny their right to renew vendor licenses and "interfered with plaintiffs' rights to earn a living."

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia cited a city code that governs regulations for vendors and said he's confident that the city will be able to defend the lawsuit in an email.

"Before the new arena was built, some vendors may have enjoyed licenses to peddle wares on Woodward north of the freeway," Garcia said. "However, since the LCA became a sports arena, BSEED has been unable to provide or renew licenses for vendors wishing to make sales in that area."

Detroit City Code prohibits stationary vendors from operating within 300 feet of a sports arena or stadium. 

Licenses for vendors within 300 feet of the sports arena shall not be approved by the city's building license center "without the written approval of the owner or management of such sports arena or stadium," the city code says. 

Olympia Entertainment, which owns and operates the arena, said it had no knowledge of the lawsuit and "no involvement in this matter," said spokesman Ed Saenz. 

Hannah had a license since 2011 for her hot dog cart, which she parked near Woodward during major sporting events and concerts in the summer months. 

She continually renewed up until 2016, when she was advised that her license would no longer be approved. Hannah said that the city didn't even come out to take official measurements to prove her cart would be within the 300 feet. 

"I just felt that they (the city) didn't prove the legitimacy of their claims," she said. 

Sales from the cart helped supplement income for Hannah, who also works for a department store and runs a tax business.

After setting up elsewhere in Detroit and failing to attract customers, Hannah relocated her cart to the Mall at Partridge Creek in Clinton Township in July.

She'd like to have her license reinstated and work in her own community, she said. 

"I want to contribute to the city that I live in," Hannah said. "I want to work there, pay taxes there."

Garcia said that the city "followed the law as it stood" long before the claimants raised concerns. 

"Even if the claimants were given bad information at some point, that would not change the law that prohibits the city from giving them permission to do what they wanted to do," he said. 

Robinson said she sold sport team-themed glasses, backscratchers, wrist bands and other items for at least 10 years at a site near Fisher and Woodard.  

She said she was given a license to be there in that spot for 2017, but it later was revoked and the fee applied toward another spot in a different year. 

"You'd think they could find a spot or make room," she said. "I guess when the big dogs come in, you just get squashed."