[image-2] The first meeting of a palmetto rose task force created after the July arrest of a 16-year-old rose seller near the City Market drew a mix of voices interested in improving the decade-old program Monday evening at the Gaillard Center.

City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie began by praising the practice of selling the crafts, which are made out of folded palmetto fronds.

“I hope what we can bring out of this is an even better and stronger entrepreneurial approach,” he said.

The 25-member group was first announced by Ruth Jordan, the city’s minority enterprise business director, days after the July 2 arrest of a minor who was involved in a physical altercation with an officer. The teen was not a part of the city’s program. According to a police report, an officer saw the unlicensed minor walking in and out of traffic to sell the roses.

[image-1] On Monday evening, city staff began by emphasizing the need for the city’s Palmetto Artisans Program, a program led by the Recreation Department that provides training, kiosks, t-shirts, and palmetto fronds for youth ages 9-16 who want to participate. In exchange, the kids and teens must agree to only sell the roses in designated areas.

Susan Griffin, the city’s neighborhood services manager, says that a few kids began selling the roses near the City Market around 2000. By 2004, merchants in the area grew concerned by the long hours the kids worked, and the merchants’ association asked the city for a solution. City Council passed an ordinance creating the current program in 2007.

The program now has 35 enrolled participants, according to city parks staffer Crystal Reed, who oversees the Palmetto Artisan Program. She says that some kids are from Mt. Pleasant and North Charleston, and the city makes no money from the free program despite the $18,000 the city spends on staffing and $7,500 it spends on palmetto fronds.

“They are no longer wandering around the city where we can’t find them,” she said. “So now these kiosks put them in the front and center of these high tourism areas.”

In 2009, the program brought home a first place livability award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

At the meeting, Reed laid out a few areas for improvement. A lot of kids are dropped off and left to sell the roses without adult supervision, which can lead to conflict between the young sellers. Additionally, the city is short on staff for the program, which included 52 children at its peak.

The task force members, which represent parents, community groups, businesses, clergy, and city staff, will be divided into four sub-groups to improve specific areas of the program: ordinance enforcement, mentorship and training, resident/tourism-business collaboration, and youth employment for those who age out of the program.

In a press release after July’s arrest, the Charleston Police Department said they had received complaints from businesses and tourists about “vandalism, assaults, and disorderly behavior” from the young sellers.

Willette Wilkins, a downtown resident, warned city staff to scrutinize the complaints they receive from the program.

“Complaints from people who like to complain are bogus,” she said. “Especially with what’s going on now, a lot of people like to pick up the phone and call 911 for stupid reasons.”

Also during the public comment section, one man mentioned the “rich tradition” of African-American sellers throughout Charleston, who would walk around neighborhoods offering their products with a yell. Another attendee wondered whether the city required similar permits from those busking in popular areas downtown.

“I see some white kids playing their instruments and people throwing money,” he said. “I ain’t ever heard nobody ask them for a permit.”

Community activists and the police department recently partnered to set up a kiosk for the young sellers at RiverDogs games.