- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

In the modest Old Greenwich, Conn., train depot, the only thing brewing now is the fresh java in vendor Adam Fairbanks’ coffee pots.

It’s a welcome change from the controversy that percolated there over the past several weeks, as a 70-year-old federal law pitted the rights of Mr. Fairbanks, a blind vendor, against those of Greg and Mary Maher, the longtime concession operators he was replacing.

Mr. Fairbanks, who opened his concession on Jan. 16, was entitled to the spot under the 1936 Randolph-Sheppard Act. That law gives blind vendors first dibs on contracts to run concessions and vending machines on government property.

In an 11th-hour compromise brokered by town and state officials, the Mahers were offered concession contracts at two other Connecticut stations. The deal is backed by a promise from the state’s agency for the blind that it won’t stake a claim to either spot.

While questions remain about the fairness of the 1936 law, the Mahers and Mr. Fairbanks have settled in to their new roles. The Mahers even visited their old location on Mr. Fairbanks’ first day of work to wish him luck.

“We were hurt and disappointed about the situation, but not sour and bitter at him,” Mrs. Maher said.

Blind managers like Mr. Fairbanks run about 3,100 vending facilities in government buildings nationwide, including nearly 40 in Connecticut.

On his first day in business, Mr. Fairbanks arrived at the station to find himself welcomed by a gaggle of well-wishers, including members of the National Federation of the Blind.

Reporters, photographers and camera operators also gathered at the modest one-room train depot, far outnumbering the puzzled commuters who passed through on their way to grab Manhattan, N.Y.-bound trains.

With a yellow happy-face balloon bobbing over his shoulder, Mr. Fairbanks, a 23-year-old Old Greenwich native, said was initially a little nervous but thought it would be a great job.

He wasn’t worried about potential lingering resentment over the change. He said of his customers: “They’re my neighbors; they know me.”

The Mahers ran their stand there on a year-to-year agreement, which the town of Greenwich extended annually as long as their service was good and they kept their insurance current.

Town officials reluctantly informed them in December that the town, bound by the federal law, had to ask them to pack up and leave once Mr. Fairbanks was ready to open his concession.

“The idea of a public policy that puts one person out of work to put another into work is, in my view, pretty bad public policy,” Greenwich First Selectman Jim Lash said.

The law, an offshoot of training and employment rules created to assist veterans, has been upheld in several court cases nationwide. The law’s advocates say it is needed to help cut the unemployment rate among blind people, which tops 70 percent.

“The complaint that the Randolph-Sheppard Act is an old and outdated law is disingenuous, given that there remains a great need for it. The employment numbers bear that out,” said Mr. Fairbanks’ father, Richard Fairbanks.

Mr. Maher started working at the Old Greenwich train station concession as a teenager for another operator but took it over with his wife in 2001. The couple, both 24, used income from the stand to supplement Mr. Maher’s full-time job as a cable technician.

Mrs. Maher also ran a smaller concession stand at the Riverside train station and, under the new compromise, the couple will continue that operation and open a new concession this spring at the Cos Cob station in Greenwich.

Some commuters who passed through the Old Greenwich station on Mr. Fairbanks’ first day said they wished him well but were displeased that the Mahers had to leave because of a law that very few people even knew about.

“It’s nice in theory, but it’s shame that it has to happen this way,” said commuter Brian Rivers of Old Greenwich.

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