By Aaron Reiss
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The Island Snow stand outside the Houston Zoo is lined with bottles of snow cone syrup, each filled with a different color and flavor, from the deep pink of bubble gum to margarita's acid green. Van DeQuevedo, a youthful 60 in his Texas Longhorns cap, offers 26 flavors in three sizes, along with bottles of Aquafina and cans of Coke.
But he doesn't offer them for free if he fails to give buyers a receipt, and that's turned into a major point of contention with his managers, the Friends of Hermann Park. The Friends announced the policy in February and ordered vendors to post signs explaining it. They even provided the signs, in both English and Spanish, each neatly laminated.
DeQuevedo's signs are gathering dust in the back of his Ford Explorer. "Things like this are just part of their arrogance," he says. "Even a first-year law student could see this isn't part of our contract."
On a recent Wednesday, as throngs of schoolkids made their way into the zoo, none of the vendors had the signs posted. Explains Juana Cheesman, as she strings colorful balloons from her stand, "I just refused. I cannot do it."
The signs are the most recent skirmish in the two-year battle between the Friends of Hermann Park and the union that represents all but two of its ten park vendors. While Friends executive director Doreen Stoller denies there's a problem, the vendors have grown increasingly angry. "They treat us very bad, worse than trash," says Juana Bohannon, who's sold toys in the park for seven years.
"There is no relationship here, and no partnership," says DeQuevedo. "All the rapport has broken down."
DeQuevedo and his wife, Tina, started selling snow cones 16 years ago. Before that, he was in construction and she worked in oil and gas, but both industries were hit hard when the city's economy crashed in the '80s. The couple started with one snow cone trailer on Chimney Rock; eventually they had eight locations.
Today, with their daughter out of college, they've cut back to just one stand, the one they've tended at Hermann Park since 1996. In 2003, they took in close to $80,000, before expenses and the city's cut. "We can make it out here," DeQuevedo says. But, he adds, of all the places he's ever peddled refreshments, "this is the worst."
It wasn't always that way. Vendors got permits from the city's Parks and Recreation Department, and the city gave the program little attention. For 14 years, vendors say, the city charged just $625 a year for permits. DeQuevedo says he had no problem with the city's management.
But the Friends of Hermann Park saw bigger potential. The nonprofit group was in the midst of a major capital campaign to improve the park. Previously focused solely on fund-raising, it added a conservation director and volunteer coordinator. "We expanded our mission to include stewardship of the park," says director Stoller. "And, like all nonprofits, we had to start looking at ways to supplement our fund-raising with other revenue."
The group pitched City Council on a plan to manage the vending operations. Vendors would pay the Friends 15 percent of their sales, and the organization would turn two-thirds of those collections over to the city and keep one-third for itself.
They estimated the city would get an additional $70,000 a year -- an increase of nearly $60,000 from its previous take. In May 2002, the city handed over operations, and the vendors inked contracts with the Friends.
But the Friends almost immediately got off on the wrong foot with their contractors. After just one month, Friends concession manager Michael Basil penned a letter to the vendors. "[W]e have reason to believe that a portion of daily sales may not been [sic] reported by some vendors," Basil wrote. "Any breach" in contract requirements, he added, could result in the Friends' terminating the guilty vendor with just three days' notice.
Many vendors took it as a direct attack. In a letter to the Friends, the vendors listed areas where the Friends had failed to live up to their end of the contract: They hadn't provided electricity or water. Nor had they figured out a way to let vendors into the park to set up before the gates opened. Nor had the Friends followed through on proposals to add vending outlets for such items as tacos and nachos. (The issues, the vendors say, still haven't been addressed.)
Last summer, at the suggestion of Councilwoman Ada Edwards, eight of the ten vendors signed on with the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. The tension worsened. The Friends suspended monthly meetings with the vendors last November. The group is eager to meet -- they say their contracts aren't being enforced, that the nonunion vendors aren't following the rules, and that they're tired of getting directives without any chance for discussion. But they can't get face time.
Stoller, the Friends' director, plays down the problems. She says she wasn't aware that the vendors wanted to meet. She claims not to know they are unhappy.
But she admits that revenues haven't matched expectations. For the 2003 fiscal year, according to the city controller, the Friends gave the city just $33,068 -- less than half of what it had predicted.