DNC small-business vendors: ‘We feel forgotten’

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  • Barack Obama
    Barack Obama
    44th president of the United States

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Rows of enthusiastic vendors hawking Obama buttons, tote bags, puppets, T-shirts and other memorabilia seem to be doing brisk business beside the Charlotte Convention Center, where thousands of delegates and members of the media have descended for the three-day Democratic National Convention. But just across the street, and behind a row of low metal barricades, a cluster of unhappy vendors—many of whom traveled hundreds of miles to attend the convention and are ardent Obama supporters—say they paid thousands of dollars to rent stalls that were placed in an out-of-the-way, unmarked parking lot where they are steadily losing money.

On Wednesday, news spread around the lot that President Barack Obama's Thursday night speech will no longer take place in the planned outdoor stadium, pushing convention attendees even farther away from the vendors.

"We feel forgotten," said Marcy Nation of Georgia, who has a stall selling Obama bumper stickers and other memorabilia in the lot. Nation is directing 10 percent of her proceeds to the Obama campaign. Several vendors who were originally given spots around Nation have picked up and moved on altogether, giving the lot an abandoned feeling. Nation said she expected the DNC host committee to put up large signs directing foot traffic to the lot, and said the street barriers make it hard for passers-by to cross over from the convention center. "They don't know we're here," she said.

The DNC has not yet responded to Yahoo News' requests for comment about the vendors' complaints. In an interview with The Charlotte Observer, a spokeswoman for the host committee said the hefty fees for tent stalls were needed to cover the cost of renting the parking lot for the week.

"I am sure President Obama [would] be disappointed to know that small businesses were being taken advantage of," said Adrian Stowe, who ended up leaving his $3,000 rented stall to sell official DNC convention T-shirts across the street, closer to the foot traffic. On that side of the street, vendor licenses cost just $200 because there are no tent stalls. Vendors either carry their goods or set up their own tables. Stowe, a Charlotte business owner, said fewer than 100 people wandered into the lot on Tuesday. "We're losing major money. I've got bins full of product," he said.

"There's no traffic, no exposure," said a vendor named Debrah, who didn't want to give her full name because she's a former Obama campaign staffer in Ohio. Debrah's team paid about $3,000 to rent a tent in the parking lot, where they've set up a stall selling "Hope" buttons, Obama T-shirts and Obama family tote bags. "The feeling is that the [DNC host committee] took our money and put us in a parking lot and didn't offer us any support," she said. Debrah, like Stowe and Nation, says she doesn't blame President Obama or his campaign for the situation, but that many vendors do. "Unfortunately, for most of the vendors it's been a bad experience and they're holding it against Obama."

One such vendor is Gwendolyn Clarke, who traveled from New York with her son and daughter's bottled water business, called NAL Water. The South Carolina water goes for $3 a bottle, but the Clarke family quickly marked that down to $1 after an insurance company called Humana began giving away free bottled water. The Clarkes maintain the practice of giving away items is against the rules they agreed to.

"I'm not listening to the rhetoric anymore. You can't treat small businesses like that because we are the backbone of the country," said Clarke, who volunteers for Obama's campaign in New York. Clarke says she will "absolutely not" vote for Obama in November, and will instead support Mitt Romney.

While Clarke was explaining her troubles, a potential customer walked by and asked, "Are you giving away free water?" Clarke told her no, and the customer ended up buying a bottle for the reduced price of $1. It's one of fewer than 20 bottles the family has sold since Tuesday.

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