Savannah horse carriage tours: where should they wait if forced to leave City Market?

Carriage horse tours being removed from Savannah’s City Market by Corey Dickstein covers a lot of interesting ground. I think it’s required reading for anyone interested in the complexities of managing a tourist-heavy historic city that also has plenty of commercial interests during the day and deep into the night.

First, let’s be very clear on one point: the city of Savannah is not primarily responsible for this decision. From the article:

But by mid-January those horse carriage stands will no longer occupy City Market’s intersection at Jefferson and St. Julian streets. The city of Savannah has notified the companies — Plantation Carriage Company and Magnolia Carriage Company and Carriage Tours of Savannah — their two-year leases would not be renewed.

That, said Veleeta McDonald, the acting director of the city’s mobility and parking services, is because Wet Willie’s is opening a City Market location at the same intersection.

“Because of the proximity to the outside seating in the courtyard area the horses are going to have to move,” McDonald said. “It really is a health concern.”

The choice not to renew the lease, McDonald added, was initiated by City Market leadership. She said the city of Savannah is simply serving as an intermediary between the groups.

If you didn’t know that Wet Willies is planning to open a location at the northeast corner of Jefferson and St. Julian streets in the center of City Market, then you didn’t read one of my City Talk columns from early August.

As today’s article notes, Wet Willies did not ask for the horse carriage stand in City Market to be shut down — it was not a condition of their lease. So I’m surprised that City Market — a private entity distinct from city government — is pushing for this. It seems to me they’d want to maximize their foot traffic and business. On slow days, those horses and drivers bring some much-needed life to the area.

So the carriage companies need a new staging area, and I think it’s entirely appropriate — given the number of spaces (taxi stands, bus stands, loading zones) already set aside for specific businesses — that the city should help find a suitable location.

If we had a city bureaucracy that was friendlier to business and more aware of the needs of retailers, the system would go something like this:

  • The city would ask the tour companies about their preferred new locations.
  • The carriage companies would make two or three suggestions after thoughtful consideration.
  • The city would then sit down with all concerned parties to see if they can make those locations work — and perhaps to brainstorm about other locations if those still seem problematic.

This ain’t rocket science.

Instead, city officials, apparently led by the acting director of mobility and parking services Veleeta McDonald (who has taken over from Sean Brandon who was promoted), came up with their own list.

Much of that list is simply ridiculous. Really.

Anyone who spends a lot of time downtown knows that the various tour and transport companies (walking, bus, carriage, bicycle, taxis, etc.) all have distinct ways of generating business. Because they have been centrally located in the busiest tourist pedestrian area besides River Street for many years, the carriage companies rely heavily on spur of the moment sales. Moving to an area without significant tourist foot traffic would require a completely different business model — and could doom the entire sector.

Now consider the choices put forward by the city, as noted in today’s article:

• 300 Williamson St.
• 200 West Bryan St. on the north side of the street next to the Inn at Ellis Square parking garage
• West Bay Street Strands on the 100 and 200 block
• 100 West Perry St. on the south side of Orleans Square
• 400 Bull St. and 00 East and West Gaston Street at Forsyth Park
• 300 Barnard St. and 100 West Charlton Street on the south side of Pulaski Square
• 400 Barnard St. and 100 West Gordon St. on the south side of Chatham Square

I agree completely with the carriage company owners that, taken as a whole, these are terrible options.

Williamson Street (north of Bay more or less behind Jere’s Antiques) has hardly any foot traffic. People walking to River Street in front of the Bohemian aren’t going to turn around for a carriage ride south — so that’s half the potential audience lost right there.

And, really, do we want carriages staging north of Bay Street so they’ll have to cross it? One of the most congested and frankly dangerous streets in all of downtown? Really?

Pulaski, Orleans, and Chatham squares get dramatically less foot traffic than squares on Bull or Abercorn. Those locations plus the Gaston Street one are also horrible choices for another reason. The average tourists do walking loops going from the northern portions of the Historic District to the southern portions. If they did decide to grab a carriage ride at Forsyth Park, for example, they’d probably want a one-way trip rather than a round trip. Why would they want to be dropped off somewhere that’s a significant walk from basic services — food, bathrooms, etc.?

The only location that’s even possible on the city’s list would be the one on Bryan Street. And it’s not completely terrible. Of course, that is one of the ugliest blocks in the entire Historic District, with the parking garage looming above.

And that block lacks visibility. A tourist could walk from The Lady & Sons, through Ellis Square, and through City Market without ever seeing the carriages.

So other options? How about right there on Jefferson Street in the heart of City Market? That’s still public property, with already limited parking.

Or how about on the western (or southern) side of Ellis Square?

Or how about asking the carriage company owners what locations they think would work best?

At one point in the piece, carriage company owner Cara Marshall says: “The city has acted like we don’t know our business; the alternative locations they’ve offered just aren’t viable.”

I hear complaints like this all the time from small business owners in Savannah — that’s a key reason for the length and tone of this post.

When it comes to dealing with small businesses, we have a longstanding city bureaucracy that often seems oriented exactly backward.

We need city leadership that welcomes entrepreneurship and new ideas, and then tries to accommodate as best it can. Instead, we have a system in which the city sets arbitrary limits (like that absurd list of proposed locations) and then expects entrepreneurs to jump through a series of ever-moving hoops. This isn’t a new development, by the way.

We can do a lot better.