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Vendors who paid fees at DNC sales village feel short-changed

Vendors who paid fees to be in DNC village feel short-changed; informal sellers see brisk trade

By Celeste Smith and Kelly Mae Ross
cesmith@charlotteobserver.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Upset vendors who paid thousands to be in the DNC’s official vending space abandoned the Legacy Village by Thursday – to sell alongside the spontaneous sellers on College Street who didn’t pay a dime.

“I did probably about 50 percent of what I hoped to do,” said Ken Toltz of Denver-based Obama-Bling.com, who spent more than $3,000 to sell his political pins.

“I know these (College Street) vendors will make more money than I will,” said Pat Duncan of Ijaba Publishing in Denver, who spent more than $2,500 in vending and licensing fees for a Legacy Village tent to sell her coffee-table book, “A Defining Moment.”

Toltz, Duncan and other vendors were told their village space, next to the Harvey B. Gantt Center on South Tryon Street would be the only selling site allowed during convention week, with the exception of the DNC’s official merchandise sold inside Time Warner Cable Arena and the Charlotte Convention Center. Those vendors also had to buy Mecklenburg County selling licenses, and buy insurance.

But on Thursday, several vendors along College Street said they set up space all week without paying anything at all. They also said they weren’t bothered by police.

“They paid $3,000 for a rip-off,” said one T-shirt vendor, motioning across the street to Legacy Village, which had empty tents on Thursday.

Village sellers said they moved tables from their tents to College Street, which has been flooded with passersby and delegates heading into the convention center. They said barricades and confusion about the purpose of Legacy Village kept customers from coming by. Food vendors remained in the village.

“We’ve lost so much money from the way things have been set up,” said Nila Nicholas, selling patriotic candies and marshmallows decorated with Michelle Obama’s face. She said she spent $2,800 to lease space for a week in Legacy Village.

College Street, on the other hand, felt more like an outdoor mall, Toltz said – similar to the setup at Denver’s 2008 DNC. The informal collection of vendors selling tote bags, shirt buttons, books and more began to line up on Tuesday.

It was unclear late Thursday whether the city had given the vendors outside the convention center permits to sell.

On Monday – Labor Day – many vendors paid to set up shop along Tryon Street for CarolinaFest. The DNC kickoff event was attended by thousands, and sales were booming.

Some of those vendors, like Sharon Kimel, then moved into the Legacy Village on Tuesday, where business became extremely slow.

Kimel paid $2,400 to set up a DNC-themed photo booth in the village. She said she made about 50 photo sales on Monday, but only 11 during her time in the village on Tuesday and the first half of Wednesday. She decided to abandon her booth but left it in Legacy Village for those who might happen upon it.

“We made the realization that this event was going to result in a financial loss and that continuing to operate the booth would be a further waste of time,” she said in an email.

Her photo booth was still in the village on Thursday, and people were taking free photos.

The local host committee, which organized Legacy Village and set the vending fees, said Thursday they waived the early withdrawal penalty of $2,000.

“We were sorry to learn that after a successful day of sales during CarolinaFest, foot traffic in the Legacy Village did not meet vendors’ expectations,” a host committee official said in an email.

“We take the complaints of our vendors seriously and have done all we can to increase post-Labor Day foot traffic,” she said. “When we heard that our vendors were frustrated, the host committee made several efforts to publicize their presence, directed visitors to their space, and waived contractual penalties for early departure, giving vendors the option to leave.”

Just as village vendor Nila Nicholas with Curlicues Confections set up table space Thursday for her Obama marshmallows, the skies opened up to heavy rain.

The unofficial vendor next door started selling $3 rain ponchos.

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