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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | MIKE DOWNEY

Atlanta Takes Wind Out of Their Sales

July 24, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — "They left last night. They left this morning. They're out of business. They moved down the street," Chad Evans says, pointing to one vending booth, then another, then another, then another.

A mime troupe performs nearby. Evans, 21, of Sacramento, can see the mimes from his own booth. He shakes his head. They are making more noise than anyone else on the street. Mimes.

He paid for this spot. Everyone did. A fat, flat fee.

"I put my whole college education into this," Evans says, waiting at his shirt stand for a customer, any customer. "They talk about Olympians. We're the ones who took risks to be here. This was our gold rush, only instead of 'Go West,' it was 'Go East.'

"An American dream?

"Worst nightmare I ever had."

As if Atlanta wasn't having enough misfortune, hundreds of street vendors, many of them threatening lawsuits, have been so unsuccessful moving their merchandise that they are dismantling their booths and leaving, 11 days before the end of the Games, or fighting a losing fight against City Hall.

Protesting the payment of thousands of dollars for reserved locations that turned out to be hidden from pedestrians in alleys, blocked by barricades or crammed next to hundreds more competitors than they were expecting, vendors such as Evans are figuratively losing their shirts.

"We got set up, but good," says Ray Hudson of Dallas, whose refreshment stand occupies the same unlit, unfrequented alley as Evans' booth.

A San Francisco flight attendant who paid $10,000 for her spot says she figured to make $40,000, minimum. She has been lucky to make $50 a day.

A Michigan woman agreed to pay $12,000 cash and 10% of her gross sales for a food booth near Centennial Olympic Park. Her receipts as of Tuesday were a little more than $200, and she is seeing a lawyer.

An upstate New York man now anticipates losing $38,000 on his $45,000 investment. A T-shirt seller with two booths on Techwood Drive, downtown, is looking at losses in six figures.

All are angry at Atlanta and in particular with B.G. Swing, Inc., a management corporation here that contractually agreed to license vendors on city-owned land. The company is owned by Munson Steed Jr., who is seen as a political crony of Mayor William Campbell, whose arrangement with Steed was branded "a sweetheart deal" by City Councilman Doug Alexander and "ambush marketing" by a spokesman for corporate sponsor Coca-Cola, which feared losing business to independent vendors' products.

The city was guaranteed $2.5 million in profits through its deal with Steed, 34, who printed T-shirts for Campbell's 1993 mayoral campaign. Steed secured a letter of credit in that amount as a guarantee to Atlanta taxpayers against minimum revenues from the vending kiosks and pushcarts. Should revenues go as high as, for example, $7.5 million, Steed will retain one-third, Atlanta the other $5 million.

When the deal was sealed last February, it infuriated councilmen such as C.T. Martin, who said, "We have 16-year-old marketing majors who could have handled this. Nobody ever needed Munson Steed or B.G. Swing."

This week, Martin is sympathizing with the vendors, saying they have legitimate complaints.

Steed's response?

"Vendors took a risk, knowing there could be a downside," he says.

Downside.

That isn't a word vendors were using Tuesday when dozens of them turned out in protest outside the mayor's office at City Hall. Most are slashing prices, trying to keep business alive.

"We were supposed to have an even bigger protest, at 7 o'clock this morning," says Evans, who left his $5-an-hour landscaping job in Sacramento to put his college savings into an Olympic souvenir stand. "I called CNN myself. We were so fired up, but after a 16-hour day, those of us who are still working are too zonked to spend all morning protesting how we got, well, you know what."

Half a block from a new House of Blues, where a few nights ago Dan Aykroyd, James Belushi and John Goodman packed in the tourists, Evans is one of many vendors whose alley is screened from auto traffic, hidden from view and totally unpopulated after dark. A beer garden, a souvenir shop, an Arkansas clothing manufacturer, all directly opposite Evans' booth, already have gone belly-up.

"Look up there," says Sun Pak, a full-time resident of Atlanta and native of Korea whose USA Souvenirs stand is still in business, barely. "That street light, it isn't on at night. Nobody walks here. Korea is so much smaller, I thought America would do the Olympics better. I don't think so now."

Down the way, Raymond Hudson and his son, Ray, stand disgustedly behind a counter of unsold water, Coke and fruit juice.

"We did what we consider to be our homework," says the elder Hudson. "My daughter [Eve Greene] is a model with the Ford Agency up in New York. She found out what a golden opportunity this was going to be. It sounded beautiful. My son works for the city of Dallas. We said, 'So what if we lose our jobs?' They told us we'd be serving 1,000 people a day, easy."

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