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Heat stays on the 'illegal' ice cream man

Parks bureau plans review of concession policy and more
by: Jim Clark, Dale, or “Gringo Paletero,” serves a customer near Essex Park in Southeast Portland, staying a step ahead of park rangers who would shoo him away — or, worse, exclude him — from selling in the parks as an unpermitted vendor.

With his long, scraggly ponytail, tattooed arms, baggy jeans and mountain bike, Dale looks more like a big kid in the park than the Good Humor man.

But for the past five years, 35-year-old Dale (who didn't want his last name used for fear that the Internal Revenue Service and city will hunt him down to pay business taxes) has made a living during the summers as a bicycle ice cream vendor in Portland, hauling his red-and-white-striped cart across town to as many parks as it takes to bring in a profit.

On a good day, he pulls in $350 and takes home two-thirds of it, after expenses. It's tax-free, he said, because he has no business permit due to a long-standing city ordinance that discourages vendors of any kind from operating in Portland parks.

'The idea is we need to regulate and control the amount of selling of goods,' said Mark Cline, who oversees enforcement of the policy as supervisor of Portland Parks and Recreation's park ranger program. 'Folks should feel free to come into the park and move around and not be bothered.'

There are a few vendors who have paid the $45 application fee and obtained a $120 monthly permit from the parks bureau to operate permanently in one section of a park, such as the hot dog vendor at Jamison Square and snow cone vendor at Sellwood Park, along with a few others. But the parks bureau awards the permits selectively.

'We limit it to places that we figure would be a good place for them,' said Mark Warrington, public safety manager at the parks bureau.

'We encourage them sometimes where you want more eyes and ears in the park from a monitoring standpoint. There's a difference in someone who has a lunch stand versus someone going through selling popsicles or ice cream. One is mobile, in and out of parks, approaching people, versus permanent like a burrito stand, where a person can say, 'Ah, a burrito would hit the spot.' '

In general, most concessionaires in Portland simply operate outside the parks, doing their business at Pioneer Courthouse Square or on downtown sidewalks, which costs $60 for an application and $75 for an annual permit from the city.

With mobile vendors like Dale, parks officials also are concerned about litter, insurance and competition with permanent vendors.

'One of the challenges we have with people like this is that they want to ride their bike into one of our parks when we have major events (for which) we have contracts with concessionaires,' said Shawn Rogers, who supervises the parks customer service center.

'That commando concessionaire is getting the benefit without having to pay the cost,' he said.

But even when there are no special events in the park, the city doesn't allow vendors in Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Why? He couldn't explain it.

That angers Dale, who occasionally does what he calls 'fountain diving' - riding into Waterfront Park or another popular park to sell as much ice cream as he can in about five minutes before a park ranger catches him and issues him a warning or park exclusion.

He hasn't been warned or excluded from a park in the past two years but claimed to have been charged with criminal trespassing a few years ago for violating a park exclusion.

'The parks department's policy of one vendor-one park is not practical for my business model,' said Dale, who lives in outer Northeast Portland and peddles his ice cream cart in Miami during the winters.

'I face this situation: make money or be legal. I make lots of money in the parks. I make little or no money outside the parks,' he said. 'I can't have it both ways. I choose to make money.'

Change is in the air

It's not only Dale who feels the heat. Cline said park rangers run into unpermitted ice cream vendors in the parks all the time, issuing warnings and excluding a handful each summer. Occasionally they call the police on those who try to sneak back in.

'They make me operate my business like a thief in the night,' said Dale, noting that he also has refused to get a $100 business license from the city 'until the city recognizes me.'

He might be able to operate legally in the parks next summer, however, since the policy in question is now in the early stages of review.

Rogers, of the parks customer service center, has proposed a list of policy recommendations for his managers to consider. City commissioners could take up the issue in upcoming months.

Among the proposals up for review:

• Creating a mobile vendor permit that would allow vendors like Dale to operate in multiple parks with a single permit, as long as there isn't a concessionaire at those locations already selling the same goods.

Rogers said he wasn't familiar with Dale's case but has handled similar gripes over the years and has seen the bureau make exceptions for some.

• Developing a permanent concession area around Waterfront Park's Salmon Street Springs, which would stay open year-round, including during events such as the Rose Festival.

'People walk across the street all the time with their food,' Rogers said. 'There's only one vendor down there, and now it's closed - McCall's (Waterfront Cafe). There are no food options there. We want them there consistently and long-term.'

• Changing the fee structure and sponsorship policy for events at city parks to reflect the event's impact on the park, rather than the set fee, which depends on whether an event is open to the public, generates revenue and several other factors.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the parks bureau, wanted to explore ways to completely waive the fees for events that target low-income youths.

Hot dogs could be next

Dale said any change to the vendor policy is welcome.

Calling himself 'Gringo Paletero' (his own translation for white ice cream man) to his Hispanic customers, Dale pulls his cart up to the edge of Southeast Portland's Essex Park one recent afternoon, careful to stay on the street, a couple of feet off the curb.

He sells double fudge pops and SpongeBob and Spider-Man bars to a steady stream of kids and parents before packing up and biking about a mile away to Lents Park, where he finds another crowd.

He doesn't plan on doing this forever, he said. 'I'm stepping up to hot dogs real soon,' he said. 'Burritos are good; I can make those, but the Mexicans rule that. I prefer hot dogs.'