City Reporter 

City Reporter

Raising a Stink

Downtown carriage drivers file lawsuit against restaurant ordinance.

By Mary Cashiola

Felicia Williams has only had her carriage driver's license for the past month. And if a temporary injunction is overturned, she'll only need it for another month.

After filing a lawsuit in Chancery Court last week, Memphis carriage companies were granted a reprieve from the city ordinance that restricts them from parking within 100 feet of a restaurant. Chancellor D.J. Alissandratos issued a temporary injunction -- in place until at least the middle of August -- against enforcement of the ordinance enacted after some restaurants complained about the smell.

So far, the carriage companies have raised about $13,000 for their legal fund, partly by going door-to-door. Even though Williams hasn't been a driver for long, she's been out canvassing -- on horseback -- through Harbor Town and the South Bluffs for the past two months. "I had a friend who was a carriage driver," she says. "I had just moved back from Wisconsin and wanted to help."

Instead of asking for donations, she and four other people are selling certificates for carriage rides and telling people about the law.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people I talk to are appalled," she says. "They can't imagine Memphis without carriages."

But according to American Chariot owner David Sydnor, that's what will happen if the city's ordinance is allowed to stand as is. He says the carriages will be relegated to Hernando and Fourth, spots that will put them out of business. "One company has already gone out of business. They've given up. Another one's about to give up," he says. Having received calls from people in other places wanting him to bring the carriages to their cities, Sydnor says the carriage companies would be welcomed at cities in South Carolina, Arkansas, and "anywhere in Florida."

No matter where the carriage companies go, if they go, it's unlikely they'll run into another restaurant ordinance. Mike Miller is a carriage operator in Minnesota and the president of the Carriage Operators of North America (CONA). Miller has heard of city ordinances governing where carriages can park at certain times of the day due to traffic. But one about parking in front of restaurants? Never.

"This one took me by surprise," says Miller. "It just doesn't happen. There are bigger cities with more carriage companies, and I've never heard of anything like that."

More often, Miller gets calls from hotels and restaurants that want carriage companies to park near their businesses. "It gives the place an ambience. That's what they're looking for."

Although Miller doesn't think the lawsuit will have repercussions on the carriage industry nationwide, he drafted an e-mail to the group's members earlier this week reminding them to clean up their horses' messes "ASAP" to prevent further problems.

"Cleanliness is a must for carriage companies," he says. If a city has just one carriage company that is lax in their horses' hygiene, it will cause problems for all of them.

Originally started because of difficulties with insurance companies in the 1980s, CONA helps lobby for carriage operators' rights but has no plans yet to step in here.

"We've got to be so squeaky-clean it would make the average person sick ... literally," Miller says.

MATA vs. Madison

Local businesses continue

to struggle with trolley construction.

By Chris Davis

"Business has picked up some, but we are still down by at least a full 25 percent," says James Dempsey Sr., owner of Stewart Brothers' Hardware, which has operated at the corner of Madison and Cleveland since 1937. "I get calls from people every day saying that they were going to come down but they just think it's too hazardous."

And just why do people think it's too hazardous? Because in spite of efforts to keep Stewart Brothers' parking lot open to the public, trolley construction has made driving down Madison an "extremely confusing and frustrating situation."

The filth kicked up from the construction has also turned Stewart Brothers' white awning the color of red clay. "I don't think [MATA's] going to pay for that," Dempsey says.

"At the meetings MATA held for us, there was a lot of emotion and people trying to calm us down," says Overstuffed Deli owner Sandi Degasperis of encounters between MATA officials and angry Madison Avenue business owners. "We assumed they were going to help more."

MATA did no studies on the economic impact of trolley construction on Madison Avenue businesses before beginning construction. No funds were put aside for assistance, and no assistance programs were put into place. Other cities facing similar situations with transit construction have plans in place to assist construction-besieged businesses, ranging from marketing assistance to low-interest loans.

To appease the angry business owners, MATA has been forced to find ways to help them, though there is no budget allocation for such aid. Most of the assistance has come in the form of advertising.

"We've done everything we said we'd do for them," says marketing director Vanessa Jones. We've advertised on radio, in the Flyer and the Downtowner. We're doing something with The Commercial Appeal."

Though MATA initially claimed that it would not use bus advertising to promote businesses, Jones says that MATA is working with the Thompson & Company agency to create a campaign for Madison Avenue businesses.

"We're spending $10,000 to do that," Jones says. The campaign will include interior bus cards on all buses and large exterior banners on 50 buses. The theme is "Business As Usual On Madison."

"We're also working with Malco theaters," Jones says, "running [slide advertisements] before the movies."

But advertising is not necessarily the primary concern of business owners. They just want to see the project, designed to link downtown with the Medical Center, completed on time. Letters delivered to businesses in December claimed that the trolley would be finished this month, but according to Jones, there have been some delays.

MATA's Tom Fox notes that between Main and Second streets, there has been a work delay while MATA coordinates joint efforts between Memphis Light, Gas and Water and Hill Brothers contractors. Fox did not know exactly how this would affect existing deadlines.

Tobacco Bowl owner Richard Alley is doubtful that the project will be completed by the end of July.

"They went three weeks without doing any [work]," Alley says. "For the last three months, it's like nothing has happened. Maybe a week here and a week there but really nothing."

The Price Of Safety

Transportation panel's recommendations will come at a high price.

By Janel Davis

Last week's child-care transportation safety report could mean financial difficulties for Joe Ann Wheeler and her daycare center.

Ellis Grove Learning Center transports 30 to 40 of the 70 children enrolled there. Throughout its seven-year existence, the center has transported the children in the 15-passenger vans commonly used in the daycare industry. But with the proposed new regulations, those vans will no longer be acceptable for transporting children. The proposal includes a January 1, 2005, deadline for all child-care providers to be licensed by the Department of Human Services (DHS) to use vehicles that meet federal motor-safety standards, such as school buses, which have been deemed the safest way to transport children.

The change causes problems for centers that use the cheaper vans. "I'm like a lot of other daycares," says Wheeler. "We're still paying notes on our three [original] vans. That's going to be hard, not only on this daycare but on other daycares also, to turn around and buy new vans."

Wheeler thinks the safety committee may be focusing on the wrong problems. "It's not the van," she says. "It's the person [driving it]."

The safety committee was appointed by Governor Don Sundquist following an April 4th accident in Memphis that left four children and a daycare-van driver dead. The committee researched and made recommendations on child-care transportation throughout Tennessee.

Committee member Jane Walters has heard arguments like Wheeler's before. "The National Transportation Safety Board has already replied to that. All we have recommended is what federal law is requiring of Head Start," she says. "These vans do have a record of accidents. I am not naive enough to think that the person driving has no influence on that. This is federal law, and it will eventually work its way down. We did not do this arbitrarily."

The panel also proposed that all vehicles carrying four or more children have a monitor on board in addition to the driver. Both drivers and monitors will be required to meet Head Start and CPR training standards, and a transportation limit will be imposed on the distance children can be transported to cut down on time spent in the vans. The DHS can carry out these guidelines, and legislators will vote on another recommendation that requires drivers to have a commercial driver's license and undergo annual physical and mental examinations.

State Representative Kathryn Bowers, who has been actively involved in child-care legislation, would like to see daycare providers taken out of the transportation business entirely. Her proposal includes contracting out the services or providing public-transportation vouchers for clients to get to the centers. She sees the panel's report and the governor's recommendations as steps in the right direction but says, "I'm still a little concerned about the requirements of buses that will be needed. [The providers] have until 2005, but they still have to purchase new buses."

"There are some things in [the report] that I think common sense dictates," says Walters. "Even though it doesn't directly involve transportation, it was difficult for me to get around the fact that it's much more difficult to open a bar than it is to open a daycare center in terms of responsibility of owners and investigation ... and that gives me pause."

The DHS is scheduled to hold public meetings on the proposed standards and make a decision on the changes soon afterward.

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