Council is reluctant to say goodbye to horse-drawn carriages after town staff suggested it should end the service in Niagara-on-the-Lake once current operators close up shop.
Councillors spent over an hour Tuesday morning discussing carriage services in NOTL after receiving a staff report containing the recommendations.
The town currently has an operating agreement with the horse-drawn carriage industry, however, staff are proposing an amendment to it.
“Requests for new licences will be denied. The town is looking to phase out the horse-drawn carriage within the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake,” staff wrote in a proposed amendment.
The report states horse-drawn carriages “have a negative impact on traffic and safety.”
It also says caleche services have been phased out in municipalities like Toronto and Montreal, and the trend is likely to continue.
“Sunsetting the operation doesn’t mean that this October it’s done,” Rome D’Angelo, the town’s director of operations, told council.
He acknowledged the new clause in the operating agreement would prevent the business owners from transferring their town-issued licences to new owners.
Queen’s Royal Tours’ owner Jeff Sentineal addressed council to voice his opposition to the idea.
“I consider that nothing short of an assault on the very existence of a business that has been around for 35 years,” Sentineal said.
Several councillors shared his concerns about adding a sunset clause to the operating agreement.
“I think that the caleche operation provides an interesting service for a small-town environment,” said Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa.
Coun. Wendy Cheropita agreed, describing it as a “beautiful service.”
“I would hate to see that go away,” she added.
No council members put forward a motion to approve staff’s report, which, if passed, would have meant the sunset clause would be added to the operating agreement.
Under the current rules, carriage operators need a licence to occupy parking spaces in Old Town before they can provide service.
The licence allows them to park carriages on King Street so they can pick up and drop off clients and tend to their horses.
Under the new rules staff pitched, these licences would expire and new ones would not be issued.
And under current rules, the town caps these licences at five because of limited space for carriages in Old Town.
In previous years, Sentineal had two licences from the town but may not need them this year because he might not be able to operate due to health concerns.
After the meeting, he said he’s had two surgeries recently and wants to prioritize getting better.
This means there may be space for a new operator to occupy the parking spots on King Street.
Ronda Cave was the second presenter on Tuesday morning and she’s trying to get her own carriage service up and running after previously working with Sentineal and Queen’s Royal Tours.
In their previous business arrangement, Cave was subletting the parking spaces downtown from Sentineal, she told council.
Cave said she’s been given more responsibility in Sentineal’s operation over the years, such as supporting the staff, caring for the horses and scheduling reservations.
That arrangement with Sentineal “is not going to work for me as a business with my own horses, equipment, staff and people who want to work with me,” she said.
Rather than operating within Sentineal’s businesses, Cave wants to establish her own so she can get access to additional support, including COVID-19 relief funds from the provincial government.
But Sentineal said he thinks it’s a mistake for the town to permit another operator to run a horse-drawn carriage in town.
He said the move could draw more animal welfare protests to town.
Those protests became a contentious issue for the town leading up to the pandemic.
“For this particular year, because they’re talking about more protesters, I will not put myself in the world of hate and disrupting my community,” he told council.
Zalepa summarized the problem succinctly: “The reality is you’ve got three operators with five licences and a disagreement between two operators.”
He said it is “no fault of the municipality” that the two operators are in dispute and since the town is not an arbitrator of businesses, it is not its responsibility to fix the dispute.
“In an ideal world, the two operators who are having a disagreement would solve their disagreement,” Zalepa said.
He said he’s comfortable with the current operating agreement because, when it was being written, there was a lot of consultation with the two carriage operators.
If people qualify for the licences, they can apply, he said.
Cave, on the other hand, said the current rules “perpetuate a monopoly” in the carriage industry.
A couple of councillors shared that concern.
Coun. Erwin Wiens said, in his opinion, the town had not allowed a third operator to come forward and compete for the town’s licences.
“I do think we need to wade into it a bit more with a bit better rules,” he added.
Coun. Nick Ruller said he is “sympathetic” to Cave’s situation and questioned if the current arrangement is “in the best interest of the broader community.”
With Sentineal looking to step back from the business, Ruller suggested staff should see if Cave could qualify for the town’s licences instead.
He and Coun. Maria Mavridis had questions about how much parking revenue the town has lost by granting the operators parking spaces in Old Town.
“Here, we are essentially excusing these businesses from contributing to that lost revenue,” Ruller said.
Council instructed staff to look into the lost revenue and report back.