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Owner of St. Petersburg Carriages sees himself as a city ambassador

ST. PETERSBURG

Leland Allenbrand came to the Sunshine City in 2006 to help his brother guide horse-drawn carriages through downtown streets.

He planned to stay one month — then the business grew.

While shepherding riders on romantic interludes, Allenbrand and his horses have become fixtures on Beach Drive. His goal is to sell St. Petersburg.

Allenbrand tells visitors to ride the Looper trolley and to stay in downtown hotels, since they can walk to museums, restaurants and other attractions. He considers himself an ambassador for the city.

"You wouldn't believe how many people ask stuff," said Allenbrand, a former oil and pipeline worker. "They see this city at 3 mph instead of buzzing by at 30 mph."

Starting with one horse and a Cinderella-style carriage, St. Petersburg Carriages has grown to four carriages, a trolley and five horses.

Allenbrand witnesses happy occasions from 9 feet off the ground: a bride and groom who ride off to live happily ever after and arm-locked couples celebrating a lifetime of anniversaries.

But with tourist season in full swing, the shuttered Pier draws the most questions. Visitors are disappointed that all they can do is walk around the inverted pyramid, he said.

Allenbrand, 61, tells them that something will rise again — someday.

"It needs to be done now," he said. "It's an icon. Rick Kriseman needs to put it on his to-do list. Forget about Tropicana Field and the Rays for now. They're not going anywhere."

• • •

Allenbrand hears customers say they think City Hall is hard to work with, but he says city employees have always been helpful to him and his business.

Still, from his vantage point, he sees room for improvement. When thousands flock downtown, his biggest issues are the following:

• Beach Drive employees taking prime parking spots. He frequently sees workers drop quarters into meters all day. He wishes city leaders could reach a deal with a garage owner for employees' cars.

• Street closures for marathons and races, events that he says keep locals away. He urges officials to start the races earlier, since many visitors don't shop or eat.

• Signs. The city needs to do a better job of letting people know which streets are open.

Allenbrand hopes to offer the rides for many years. He now travels across the area for special events. One thing has stood out in the past seven years: a shift to younger customers from across the region.

"St. Petersburg is on a roll," he said. "We don't need it to stop. This city has done a very good job keeping up with growth. Residents don't know what a hidden gem this city is."

An average carriage ride costs $80 for about 30 minutes. Weddings and other special events are priced separately. Every route is different. Allenbrand also offers tours of the Old Northeast.

Food and medical care cost $600 per month for each horse. In addition, he spends $12,000 per year on liability insurance. The city also charges $250 a month in rent to store his carriages in a covered shed.

• • •

While visiting other cities, former Mayor Rick Baker spotted carriages in New Orleans, Savannah and New York City. With a downtown revival under way in 2006, Baker directed staffers to learn about the ordinances and companies that offer the service.

Around that time, Woody Allenbrand was visiting from Kansas City, Mo. He strolled into City Hall to pitch his service. He and Baker struck a deal on a trial basis.

Woody Allenbrand persuaded his brother Leland to drive the carriages for a month. They found customers. Leland Allenbrand stayed and eventually bought the business from his brother, who died last year.

"It's a great ambience for downtown," Baker said last week. "People love the horses and buggies going by."

The horses are popular on Beach Drive. Resident from condo buildings frequently give them apples, carrots and other treats. Children ask to pet them.

With Kriseman and two new council members in office, Allenbrand wants the city's nine elected leaders to take a field trip.

"Come down and take a ride for an hour," said Allenbrand, who lives in Pinellas Park. "They'll see stuff they've never seen. There's a lot of eccentric things they don't know about."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @markpuente on Twitter.

Owner of St. Petersburg Carriages sees himself as a city ambassador 01/03/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 3, 2014 11:10pm]
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