Horse Drawn Carriages
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Horse Drawn Carriages

byline - Lisa Fickenscher

Story published in Crain's New York Business on 1 October 2007

Fearing extinction, industry fights for rate increase, counters activists. Last month, the tragic death just off Central Park of a carriage horse named Smoothie triggered a wave of public outrage.

A City Council member is now vowing to introduce legislation that would forever ban horse-drawn buggies from city streets. On top of everything else, the public scrutiny comes at a time when revenues are declining steeply. Worried that they could follow Smoothie to the grave, carriage owners are fighting back.

They have hired a publicist and convinced Councilman James Gennaro, D-Queens, to introduce a bill to give them their first rate increase in over 18 years. In a move aimed in part to undercut criticism from animal rights activists, the owners are asking the city for help in stepping up safety measures for the horses and in cleaning up areas where they stand during the day. ``We are earning less and less, and this can't go on,'' says Cornelius Byrne, co-owner of 40-year-old Central Park Carriages, which owned Smoothie.

Driving all these actions is the worst crisis the carriage industry--consisting of 68 licensed buggies and 293 licensed drivers--has faced in decades. A recent report from the city comptroller's office calls for tighter controls on the business. Competition from a new army of pedicabs, which are far cheaper, is eating into profits. Carriage owners, a group of 53 mostly Irish families, estimate that their earnings are off about 30% this year as a result of the pedicabs and a dip in the number of New York area suburbanites willing to splurge on buggy rides.

Plaza renovation hurts: . ``fewer day-trippers are coming into the city,'' says Ian McKeever, who owns Shamrock Stables. ` `We are missing out on the local people.'' On top of everything else, the lengthy renovation of the Plaza Hotel has cast a shadow over the industry. Fewer people, especially in the evening, stroll around Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, where the carriages wait for passengers. Instead, Times Square is siphoning tourists away from Central Park, say carriage drivers.

Meanwhile, carriage owners' expenses have been soaring. Prices of feed grain have jumped 38% to $13.80 a bag this year alone. A bag of sawdust used in the horses ' stalls sells for $6, more than double the $2.65 price of just two years ago. Owners find themselves crushed between rising costs and falling revenues--a squeeze made worse by the city's rate freeze. ``This should never have happened, that we were bound to a price for 18 years,'' says Mr. Byrne.

 The industry is pushing to hike the charge for the first half-hour of a ride to $44 from $34 currently. The price of each additional 15 minutes could rise to as much as $15, from $10 currently. Owners, however, fear that the council won't act to avoid a fight with animal rights groups that want to put the industry's 221 horses out to pasture.

Compromises Feared: ``we have been very effective in our efforts,'' says Elizabeth Forel, president of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages. Councilman Tony Avella, D-Queens, wants to do his bit. He is drafting legislation for a horse ban. While few people think that any such measure would ever win council approval, some carriage owners admit that they are worried about the costs of a victory on the fare front. In 1989, when the price of the first 30 minutes in a carriage was doubled to $34, the city forced owners to pull their carriages off city streets during the evening rush for three hours. ``We fear that our hours could be cut back [again],'' says Conor McHugh, who owns four horses .


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