Graduation balloon vendor denied access

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When the first graduates of the new millennium attended commencement at Mellon Arena in 2000, Adrienne Lawson was there to wish them well. For a decade now, Lawson and her two sisters have continued the tradition, working as balloon vendors outside of Pittsburgh Public School District commencement ceremonies at the arena.

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SISTER SISTER—Ursula Lawson, left, joins her sister, Adrienne Lawson, for a yearly tradition.

However, in recent years, their entrepreneurial endeavor has become a little less rewarding. In 2008, a competing sidewalk vendor opened a shop in front of the arena entrance and the Lawson sisters were prohibited from using their original location.

“As of two years ago they slowly started edging me out. As of last year they pushed me clear up Centre (Avenue) toward the new arena. When I arrived all security broke loose to tell me I had to leave. I was never permitted on the arena grounds. I had to be across the street, but now they have me pushed clear up the Hill House,” Lawson said a few weeks prior to this year’s ceremonies. “I anticipate being there this year. I’m going to have my proper papers arrive at the proper time. I’m going to stand at the spot and see what happens, but I’m not a troublemaker.”

While Lawson had believed the issue would be resolved this year, she was again faced with the same hostility from Mellon’s security guards when she arrived outside of the arena June 19.

“They knew I was coming. I used to be allowed right across from the entering gates. This weekend I stayed on Centre (Avenue). I was accosted by security telling me I had to get off the property,” Lawson said. “It seemed like it was a replacement issue, a racial issue possibly since the other vendors are White. They’ve never said (the other vendors) have a particular permit that I do not, because I would have tried for that. No one ever asked to see my permit.”

According to the city’s vending ordinance, vendors must acquire written approval from the owners of Mellon Arena. Although Lawson is aware of this, she said it was never an issue and wonders about the arena’s sudden change in practice.

“The arena never gave you flack, but you couldn’t be on their property and I followed that. I’ve been there so many years,” Lawson said. “When the economy got bad I could always count on the PPS graduations, but last year we went home with a lot of inventory and that doesn’t normally happen.”

Representatives from Mellon Arena did not return several requests for comment regarding their vending policies. But Mark Brentley, District 8 PPS school board representative has an idea of his own.

“I think this is a snapshot of what the owners of Mellon Arena, how they feel about minority-owned businesses in the city of Pittsburgh. I bet if you were to check over the years, I bet their policies and practices were similar to this discrimination against the Lawson sisters,” Brentley said. “I’m disappointed as a public official who voted to have our graduations there and pay thousands of dollars. We never intended to have them chase away and discriminate against minority-owned businesses.”

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