Senate committee tables bill regulating barkers in the V.I.


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ST. THOMAS - After hours of contentious debate, a bill to regulate barkers in the territory was held in the Senate Economic Development, Agriculture and Planning Committee on Friday for further review.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, does not ban the use of solicitors to lure customers into businesses, but instead lays out a number of regulations for them and restricts them to certain areas.

However, the details of the legislation were a source of confusion at Friday's hearing.

Malone distributed an amendment in the nature of a substitute Thursday evening, but many of the testifiers had prepared their statements based on the original bill and were not prepared to offer opinions on the revised measure.

Several speakers made reference to an amendment that was proposed by Downtown Revitalization Inc., but that measure was not officially before the Legislature.

As she adjourned the meeting Friday, committee chairwoman Janette Millin Young said another amendment will be proposed at the next hearing on the bill. She said that hearing will take place on St. Croix, where there are few, if any, barkers.

Local business owners on both side of the issue testified Friday.

Representing the St. Thomas-St. John District Chamber of Commerce, Steve Morton said barkers are a black mark on the historic downtown Charlotte Amalie area.

"Barkers are a group of people that operate without a set of rules or code of conduct. Unlicensed, unruly and aggressive, barkers often engage in physical fighting, in plain view of the visitors we spend millions of dollars to attract," Morton said.

The chamber estimates that there are about 15-20 businesses in the downtown area - 5 percent to 10 percent of the total merchant population - which employs 20 to 30 barkers year round, according to Morton. He estimates that number increases to 50 barkers in the peak season. Some stores have as many as six or seven barkers walking throughout the town, he said.

"How can we allow stores that are licensed to operate in a designated retail space the right to hire salespeople to work on our streets and sidewalks?" he asked.

Morton said sales in the downtown district on St. Thomas have dropped, and it is partly because of the way guests are treated as they walk the streets and visit the shops.

"Barkers are driving our visitors and local customers away," Morton said.

Downtown Revitalization Inc. is an umbrella organization comprising taxi associations, neighborhood associations, business owners, property owners and other interested individuals. David Bornn, president of the organization, said the group wants an outright ban on barkers in the historic district.

The V.I. government has made it clear that enforcing anything other than a total ban is not practical or feasible given the government's limited resources, according to Bornn.

He cited bad behavior of barkers - including public fights, drunkenness and aggressive and disrespectful sales techniques - as a reason tourists are uncomfortable downtown and why more businesses are leaving Main Street in an effort to protect their brand images.

In place of barkers, Bornn supports the idea of information kiosks to offer advice and guidance to tourists.

Charles Matthew has worked as a barker for years. Now he owns his own store in town called Shaka Man Zulu, located on Raadets Gade.

Matthew, who walks around soliciting business for his store wearing a Shaka Zulu outfit, said barkers are needed to drive business to the side streets that do not get the same foot traffic as Main Street.

He acknowledged that "there is a bad apple in every bunch," but said it is not fair to punish everyone.

"Do we pass a law or do we try to deal with the individuals who do not have a favorable performance? Banning hard working, honest people trying to survive and take care of their families is not the answer," he said.

In 2006, an executive order banned barkers from the streets of downtown Charlotte Amalie, but no law banning or regulating the practice was ever passed. Gov. John deJongh Jr. submitted a proposed bill to the 29th Legislature banning the practice, but his bill was pre-empted by Malone's legislation.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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