Beaufort officials acknowledge horse-drawn carriages are emblematic of the city's charm and a big tourist attraction.
But the carriage tours also have been a constant source of conflict and a headache to those refereeing the squabbles.
As a result, the Beaufort City Council may consider new rules aimed at regulating operators, a proposal that is part of a wider discussion about the future of tourism in the city.
"If we decide we want to make changes to the carriage tours, then that might be the time to do it," Mayor Billy Keyserling said.
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Before they make any decisions, City Council members say they want to make sure any new rules would complement tourism and not harm one of Beaufort's main economic drivers.
The city currently allows two carriage companies to operate and puts the spots up for bid every five years. The current contracts expire in about a year.
The tour companies pay about $26,000 each a year, plus a business license fee, for one of the slots. The city is required to provide an adequate staging area for both companies.
HOPE FOR THE HORSES?
The council devoted about an hour and a half of a workshop Tuesday to a wide-ranging discussion of tourism that included horse carriage policies and a proper definition of "downtown."
Though it seemed unlikely to happen, the possibility of eliminating carriage tours altogether was mentioned, a reflection of the intense competition and disagreements between the two current operators that council members say require too much attention from them and city staff.
Owners of the two companies say they don't believe council would do away with the tours.
"It's a nice way to leisurely go through town, see the houses and gardens and really see what Beaufort has to offer," said Walter Gay, owner of Sea Island Carriage Co. "People like the mystique of it."
Gay and Peter White, owner of the competing Southurn Rose Buggy Tours, have quarreled with Gay over several issues, including the way each goes about soliciting walk-up business. The city recently tried to stem that controversy by providing a kiosk near the carriages' staging area in the Beaufort Downtown Marina parking lot and requiring the companies to make their direct sales to customers there.
Gay and White say that has helped relations a bit, but there's room for more improvement.
White, for example, suggested the city only contract with one company at a time.
City officials, however, have said creating a monopoly might not be legal or in the city's best interest.
Gay doesn't support moving to a single carriage-operator system but said other changes could be made -- possibly a shorter contract for both companies.
He also has requested safety improvements, including signs to show Bay Street motorists where the carriages enter the street from the marina parking lot.
Gay wants the recently reconstituted Tourism Management Advisory Committee to meet regularly -- with well-advertised, public gatherings at least six times a year. Council plans to fill openings soon for the committee, which will advise City Council on tourism-related matters.
Gay wants to make sure one of the city's top industries remains alive and kicking.
"Tourism is the goose that keeps laying golden eggs in Beaufort," Gay said. "Council needs to make sure it doesn't cut its neck off."
TIME TO LOOK AHEAD
By revisiting carriage-tour rules and reviving the tourism committee, Keyserling said the city is addressing an overarching question: "How do we use our assets to attract visitors?"
That question is answered by defining Beaufort as a product and marketing it, said Bob Moquin, executive director of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Visitor and Convention Bureau. The bureau was enlisted to collect data and local input and use that to create the council's vision.
"Hospitality, friendliness of our community, infrastructure, attractions -- all of those make up the product," Moquin said.
The vision also should consider a larger downtown, which usually has been defined as Bay Street and surrounding corridors, Keyserling said.
"You're pouring every bit of your hopes and dreams and liabilities and problems into one, four-block area," city manager Scott Dadson said Tuesday. "Our thinking confines it to a spot."
Moquin said the visitor bureau will work with the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce and others that might have ideas about changes.