While horse-drawn carriages will still be seen riding off into the sunset this season, and likely in future seasons in Niagara-on-the-Lake, it is not yet known for certain who those operators will be, or how they will be determined.
What is clear is that this council supports caleche operations and wants them to continue, with no end in sight.
After hearing delegations from caleche operators Jeff Sentineal (Queens Royal Tours) at last Tuesday’s committee of the whole meeting, and Rhonda Cave, who is seeking a caleche licence, council has requested the town revise its recommended amendments to the 2023 operating terms of reference that would have seen the eventual end to horse-drawn carriages in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The framework for the licensing and operation of horse-drawn carriages in town was approved by council in May 2022 after collaboration between the town and its two existing licensed operators, Sentineal Carriages and Queens Royal Tours. It allows for five licenses to occupy space at the corner of King and Queen streets in Old Town.
However, at a council meeting last month, caleche operator Rhonda Cave sought permission to obtain a licence to occupy an additional space. Cave’s request prompted a request from council to town staff to review the 2022 framework.
Cave indicated she had already been operating carriages in NOTL last season, but it’s unclear whether she was an employee of Queens Royal or using its licences, CAO Marnie Cluckie — that’s an issue staff need to clarify, she said.
The town’s proposed amendments included the addition of a sunset clause that would see the eventual phasing out of horse-drawn carriages in NOTL; a cap of five spaces for caleches, which could only be granted to Sentineal Carriages and Queens Royal Tours, with the inability to ‘sublet;’ and the refusal of any new additional licences.
The sunset clause meant that when either of the two current operators ceased to operate for a year or more, their licences would be revoked, with no new operators allowed to take their place.
Rome D’Angelo, the town’s director of operations, explained that the sunsetting of caleches follows a trend occurring in major cities such as New York, Toronto and Montreal.
Coun. Wendy Cheropita addressed the support the carriage companies have had in town in light of the protests that have ongoing since 2017, saying that “residents stepped up, stood up, and fought on behalf of keeping this service, because it adds to the charm and the small-town feel. Visitors and residents love this service.”
Councillors agreed they do not support a sunset clause in the framework for horse-drawn carriages.
In regard to Cave’s request to operate her own caleche business this season, council did not decide to allow any additional licences for the 2023 season after it was discovered that there may be an opportunity for her to operate under the existing allotment of five licences.
When Sentineal said he would not be operating this year, Coun. Nick Ruller, who said he was “sympathetic” to Cave’s situation, asked that town staff explore the opportunity of letting her operate within the existing capacity, if space exists.
Sentineal did not indicate his intentions for the future.
Councillors unanimously agreed that all five spots should be filled. “The season is upon us, and people are going to expect to get on a caleche. Are we getting five caleches out or are we not?” asked Coun. Erwin Wiens.
While councillors seemed keen to ensure horse-drawn carriages continue to delight tourists in NOTL and that all spots be filled, with the possibility for Cave to fill two of them, the future of the process by which caleche operators are awarded licences is still undecided.
For her part, Cave said the staff’s suggested amendments to the framework, which would have allowed only Sentineal and Queens Royal to operate, created a “monopoly” in town.
Councillors objected to the word “monopoly,” but did say that the framework should allow for a competitive process to fill any vacant spots, and that parameters for what constitutes operating be clearly defined.
That was not part of the motion that was approved, said Cluckie, and would be something to look at for the long term.
The operating framework is now back with town staff to amend based on the feedback provided by council, including a query from Coun. Nick Ruller about whether the $500 fee per licence for space makes up for the lost parking revenue for the town.