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CITY TALK: Draft of alcohol ordinance a good read

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 9:28pm

Savannah city officials recently released yet another draft of the proposed alcohol ordinance rewrite.

Before reading my take on the new ordinance, you might want to check it out for yourself at http://www.savannahga.gov/alcohol.

The latest version has the same key concepts and provisions that were in the summer 2015 draft, but the language has been streamlined. It appears about one-third of the words were trimmed from the previous draft.

And it seems to me we have a document that, at long last, looks pretty good, although I could certainly have missed some problematic details.

One of the most important, necessary and welcome changes from our current ordinance is the inclusion of new classes of license holders.

The new ordinance would include licenses for caterers, manufacturers and brewers, retail sellers, package sellers, wholesalers and complimentary service. The inclusion of that final category would finally give salons, stores and other types of businesses a legal way to provide complimentary wine and beer to customers.

The new ordinance also has provisions for event venues that are not open on a daily basis.

Retail license holders that host “live entertainment performances” — a definition that excludes karaoke, by the way — can apply for an underage permit, which allows 18- to 20-year-olds to be in the establishment for the duration of the performances.

I’m sure there will be some public debate about this change, but, as I have documented extensively in previous columns, the proposed new ordinance would simply allow Savannah entrepreneurs and young adult residents the same rights they would be afforded in cities across the Southeast.

A 2014 draft detailed especially rigid rules for security at bars, even those with no history of problems, but the current draft takes a more common sense approach. All bars will have to submit public safety plans, and a variety of guidelines will give officials leverage to ensure establishments do not become public nuisances.

That 2014 draft also proposed extending the to-go cup boundary slightly southward along the Bull Street corridor to include Forsyth Park.

In recent drafts, city officials have abandoned that proposal, so there would be no change to the current to-go cup boundaries although the new ordinance does include language that would make it legal to drink alcohol in Forsyth Park during some official events.

I strongly favor extending the to-go cup zone to areas south of Forsyth Park along the Bull Street corridor, but that’s a discussion for another day — or another year.

Mid-year implementation of the new ordinance could be problematic, but some folks have already been waiting a long, long time for key elements of the draft to become law.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: Trends to watch for the rest of 2016

Sat, 02/06/2016 - 11:25pm

With so much news at the beginning of the year, I neglected to devote a column to some of the bigger questions facing Savannah in 2016. So here it is, a little late.

We are all wondering if the new mayor and aldermen will impact the direction of the city, but the first concern is obviously about crime.

What will happen to crime trends in 2016? Will new strategies and better police staffing lead to measurable declines?

With only about three weeks of data available, 2016 looks a lot like 2015. Using numbers through Jan. 23 and comparing this year to last year, we have had the same number of murders (2), the same number of aggravated assaults with guns (16) and slightly more robberies (33 to 26).

But it’s really early in the year, and it’s worth keeping in mind that crime surged in the latter half of 2015. If the numbers for the first few months of 2016 match the numbers from 2015, that’s probably a positive trend.

Savannah isn’t going to change from a high-crime to a low-crime city in a year, but we could plausibly hope that crime rates return to their long-term trends, at minimum. And that means significant declines, especially in violent crimes and in auto thefts.

Who will be our new Savannah city manager? Will the process be as contentious as it was during the search that resulted in the hiring of Rochelle Small-Toney? Will we hire someone with the right skills, knowledge and vision?

With few signals so far about the impending search, I have no idea if we will have a productive search, and I have to assume that some potential candidates would be scared off by the city’s recent political volatility.

I’m hoping for the best from the city manager search process, but I can’t say more than that at this point.

And what does the rest of 2016 hold for Broughton Street, which has become so important to Savannahians?

There are some key spaces still available in the Broughton Street corridor, and 2016 might be the real test of the breadth of demand for high-priced retail in downtown generally.

But it seems certain that there will be more investment on Broughton Street. We just don’t know how much.

I have some cynical readers who think Broughton will collapse like a house of cards, but I don’t think those folks clearly understand that major corporations do their homework and are in a position to weather rough patches.

Gap and Banana Republic have been on Broughton for over 15 years. A newcomer like H&M isn’t going to construct a massive new building and then vacate quickly.

As we all now know, the major corporate investments in Broughton Street have pushed some local business owners into other parts of the Historic District and even into other neighborhoods. Bull Street between Park Avenue and Victory Drive has changed dramatically in recent years, and interest in the corridor is still growing.

But what about the broader economy? Will the Savannah economy continue to grow through 2016?

For what it’s worth, I agree with economists who see steady growth through the remainder of the year.

But it’s obviously worth noting that, by some historical measures, the U.S. economy is overdue for a recession.

There have been 12 recessions in the United States since 1945 — approximately one recession every six years. Sometimes recessions came in quick succession, but sometimes we had a full decade between them.

The so-called “Great Recession” ended in summer 2009, so the calendar warns us that we should expect another recession soon, almost certainly before the end of this decade.

Or not.

Maybe the sheer depth of the recession that began in 2007 changed the equation. Even though the economy started growing again by summer 2009, it took several years before key sectors returned to their pre-recession levels. So perhaps the slow recovery will buy us some extra time before the inevitable next contraction.

When the next recession does arrive, I doubt the local economy will be decimated like it was the last time.

Before the 2007-2009 recession, Savannah’s real estate market had lost contact with the fundamentals, and investors here continued to make risky bets even as markets in other cities were crashing. It was crazy to watch.

I don’t see evidence of such reckless speculation today, so in theory the next recession should not devastate household wealth like the last one did.

These are just a few of the trends that I’ll be watching and covering in 2016, which is shaping up to be an especially important year for the city.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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CITY TALK: Employment strong in metro area in 2015

Mon, 02/01/2016 - 10:03pm

In late January, the Georgia Department of Labor released the employment estimates for December, which means we now have a snapshot of the local and statewide labor markets for all of 2015.

Before we take a closer look, it’s worth noting that some of the Department of Labor estimates are adjusted for seasonality and others are not. Hirings, firings and layoffs follow predictable trends — jobs are always lost in January, for example — so it’s often better to look at long-term trends than month-to-month changes.

According to the estimates for payroll employment, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 168,300 jobs in December 2014. That number rose 4.1 percent to 175,200 in December 2015.

The metro area population is increasing, but the rate is something well under 2 percent per year.

The private sector added jobs at a rate of 4.5 percent, considerably faster than the public sector rate of 1.7 percent.

I’ve been closely following construction employment since before the recession hit in 2007. It’s interesting to note that the number of local payroll jobs remained precisely flat in 2015. We had an estimated 6,000 jobs in construction in December 2014, and we had the exact same number in December 2015.

By contrast, we saw robust 6.1 percent growth in manufacturing jobs in 2015, and we saw an especially impressive 15.3 percent surge in the broad category of professional and business services, which includes various types of managers and support staff, accountants, architects, engineers, computer experts and consultants.

But the sector that includes private sector education and health jobs grew by only 1.6 percent between December 2014 and December 2015. That growth rate is probably on par with the regional population growth rate.

The broad category of trade, transportation and utilities added jobs at a 2.6 percent rate in 2015, while leisure and hospitality added jobs at a 4.6 percent rate.

Let’s look at the numbers another way.

We had an estimated 175,200 payroll jobs in December. The key components of that total are leisure and hospitality (25,300), education and health services (24,800), government (23,800), professional and business services (23,400), retail trade (21,100) and manufacturing (17,500).

If we had the ability to design an economy from scratch, we’d probably want to shift the balance of those sectors to some degree.

If the new Savannah city administration is able to sustain the scrutiny of poverty that we saw during last year’s election, we should begin our deeper analyses with the understanding that we are in fact seeing steady growth in virtually all employment sectors, including ones that pay living wages.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: More angst over the impending destruction of the Johnny Harris restaurant

Sat, 01/30/2016 - 11:12pm

The recent angst about the fate of Johnny Harris Restaurant got me thinking about some other interesting uses, reuses and demolitions of commercial properties in recent years.

Consider The Grey, which took over a former bus station that later turned into an auto garage before becoming Café Metropole in the 1990s. After Metropole closed, the building sat empty and deteriorating for years.

But the old Greyhound station clearly had cultural, historical and architectural significance, and it had something else too: good bones. I say that despite the crumbling ceiling and myriad other problems The Grey’s owners had to address.

It was simply a building that was well-designed for public gatherings and for food service.

Consider The Florence on Victory Drive, which took over a long-neglected space that had once been home to the Savannah Ice Factory. If you’re looking for an example of a developer incorporating older structures into a new development, Jamestown’s One West Victory is certainly an interesting one.

Consider Cotton & Rye, which took over a Habersham Street space that was originally built as a bank but later became a series of food-related businesses.

I mention those examples because they are open to the public and fairly recent, but other examples abound, especially in the downtown area, where history and architecture are regarded as more important than in some other parts of town.

The preservation movement has been a driving force in Savannah for 60 years, but for much of that time attention has been primarily focused on the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

And even in the downtown area, the forces for preservation have taken a few hits recently.

In my opinion, which is not shared by all of my readers, developer Ben Carter and his team deserve high praise for their restoration work on Broughton Street, but they were allowed to demolish a historic building at 240 West Broughton St. That lot is now covered by the massive new H&M building.

In 2014, despite the objections of a variety of preservationists and architects, the city of Savannah demolished the historic mid-century pharmacy at 916 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The building was structurally unsound, but many of us did not trust that city leadership explored all available options.

In 2015, city officials also plowed ahead with the demolition of Meldrim Row between Montgomery Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Those were residential properties, but they were rentals and warrant at least a mention in this column.

The oldest homes in Meldrim Row dated to the 1880s and almost certainly would have been occupied by Savannahians who had been enslaved just a generation earlier. It still stuns me to think that we wiped so much tangible history away.

 

Asking questions

Which brings me again to Johnny Harris Restaurant.

I wrote about Johnny Harris in a recent column, but the restaurant was back in the news last week after company President Norman L. Heidt sent a letter to Metropolitan Planning Commission Executive Director Tom Thomson explaining the decision to demolish the iconic Victory Drive building.

Heidt’s reasoning was clear.

The aging, sprawling 9,000-square-foot restaurant needs major investment in infrastructure, according to Heidt, and does not meet modern standards for efficiency. The owners have simply decided to close the restaurant.

And Heidt detailed an interesting trademark issue. Since Johnny Harris will still make BBQ sauce and use the image of the building on the logo, the company doesn’t want another entity to occupy it.

On social media, Heidt’s letter was met with widespread frustration, anger even derision.

Heidt made no attempt to speak for ARS Ventures LLC, but it also seems probable that the developer does not see any profitable way to fit the oddly shaped restaurant, which dominates much of the Victory Drive frontage, into a larger site plan.

In other words, the money just doesn’t add up like it did in the smaller examples of adaptive reuse that I mentioned at the top.

So could anything have been done in terms of public policy to save the building?

Historic designations, especially those that bring tax breaks and credits, might have changed the equations at some point.

We’ve also made the collective decision, over a period of decades, that we would encourage suburban-style commercial development on that stretch of Victory Drive.

If there are other commercial properties that Savannahians desperately want to be preserved, perhaps we need to start asking questions right now about possible historic protections and about the underlying zoning and future land use plans.

At the end of the day, we have a capitalistic economy and landowners have broad rights to do what they want with their own properties.

Sure, we can create systems that incent preservation and encourage development patterns that the community wants, but those efforts need to be proactive rather than reactive.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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CITY TALK: Delayed ordinances have symbolic power

Mon, 01/25/2016 - 9:29pm

As Eric Curl reported last week in his article “Savannah employees await delayed pay increases,” the city of Savannah is planning salary adjustments for approximately 1,600 employees.

The process has been ongoing since fall of 2014, but it can’t move ahead until the city manager’s office forwards crucial information about pay levels to a consultant.

The city has also not resolved issues of salary equity for experienced public safety officers.

“I don’t think this council is willing to wait much longer,” said 4th District Alderman Julian Miller.

The delayed salary adjustments join a backlog of items at City Hall, including a rewrite of the alcohol ordinance, a proposed food truck ordinance and a zoning overhaul. Not to mention understaffing of the police department and the interminable process to construct a new Cultural Arts Center, about which many questions linger.

Sure, crafting good public policy can be a slow process at times. And, yes, in some cases it made sense to let the new mayor and council take a look at new policies before they are implemented.

The delays probably aren’t having dramatic effects on the area economy, but they are having real consequences to real people.

Imagine that you’re one of the veteran police officers who is being paid less than someone who works under you.

Or imagine that you are a young entrepreneur who wants to launch a food truck but have been waiting for several years for any ordinance at all.

Or imagine that you are considering an investment in a large performance venue, but the numbers only work if you can cater to patrons who are over 18 years old and if you can also serve alcohol. As I’ve noted before in this column, that’s a standard business model across the Southeast, but it’s against the law here in Savannah.

The new city council has divvied up some responsibilities, with newly elected 2nd District Alderman Bill Durrence taking on the unenviable task of monitoring ordinance changes. Let’s hope that the new structure helps us get somewhere on these and other issues.

In many ways, the Savannah economy is booming relative to many other cities, but that’s despite the slow and convoluted decision-making at City Hall.

Beyond the effects on individual business owners and investors, the food truck and alcohol ordinances have become symbols of a city government that simply can’t keep up with the times and can’t judge the public mood.

Those are terrible signals to send would-be entrepreneurs and investors.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: Savannah Taphouse brings 'upscale sports bar atmosphere' to Broughton Street

Sat, 01/23/2016 - 11:13pm

When you walk into the new Savannah Taphouse for the first time, you’ll probably be as surprised as I was by the dramatic makeover of the space at 125 East Broughton St.

Well before my time in Savannah, the building was the lobby of the Avon Theater. Moviegoers entered under the marquee on Broughton Street but had to pass through the lane to get to the actual theater.

Historical information available online indicates the Avon opened in 1944, which was of course during World War II, and closed in 1970 when downtown businesses were facing stiff competition from new commercial corridors in the suburbs.

The Lucas Theatre and Weis Theatre (now Trustees Theater) continued to show movies for longer than the Avon, but both closed within a decade.

For many years, City Lights Theatre Co. occupied 125 East Broughton St. The nonprofit did some excellent productions over the years before the building was turned into a series of restaurants, including Lime Grill, Seasons of Japan Bistro and R.O.S.E. Public House.

I liked all of those establishments and wrote about all of them in this column.

The Savannah Taphouse has made more dramatic changes to the space than the previous restaurants did.

The ownership team, which is aiming for an “upscale sports bar atmosphere,” has knocked out a big chunk of the first floor ceiling – a bold decision that emphasizes the height and scale of the building.

Wide steps near the entrance lead to the seating on the second floor. The ground floor has a long bar on the eastern wall, booths on the western wall and comfortable high bar tables in the middle of the room.

Some of the brick walls and the Avon’s original floor have been exposed, and the new interior design aims for a warm, contemporary, even somewhat industrial feel.

It’s an impressive buildout.

And before I talk about the food and drink, I should add that Savannah Taphouse has a lot of televisions.

Of course, you would expect televisions at a self-described sports bar that emphasizes the beer menu and is co-owned by Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but you still might not expect the TVs to dominate so much of the wall space.

Sitting at the bar, patrons are faced with a bank of six large-screen televisions with no space between them. There’s a similar arrangement on the second floor, and each booth has its own television. The Savannah Taphouse website says there are 28 total TVs.

It seems like Savannah Taphouse is shooting for some of the folks who patronize spots like Wild Wing Café and World of Beer, but the 100 block of East Broughton is pretty quiet at night. Sure, it’s just a few blocks away, but the new restaurant and bar will still have to figure out how to lure potential patrons who are headed to the City Market area.

Savannah Taphouse features several dozen beers on tap, including some good local options. On my first trip last week, I enjoyed a couple of drafts of Coastal Empire Beer Co.’s Praline Amber Ale.

There are of course many more beers available by the bottle and other drinks available from the bar. The premium cocktails are less expensive than at many downtown bars.

The food menu offers lots of options too.

I started with the build-your-own chopped salad ($7.99), which could easily be turned into a meal if you add a protein for an extra charge. The base price includes a good-sized bowl of greens with five toppings chosen from a list of 30 options.

Next I had the Santa Fe Burger ($10.99), a hearty option with Angus beef, bacon, smoked Gouda and a side of chipotle mayo. My dinner companion had the Reuben ($10.99). Both the burger and the sandwich were served with big portions of nicely seasoned waffle fries.

In addition to the burgers and sandwiches, the Savannah Taphouse menu also has some tempting entrees, including several chicken dishes and pasta dishes. All are priced under $20.

And Savannah Taphouse offers a beer club with a variety of benefits for a one-time membership fee of $20.

Savannah Taphouse is a similar concept to the six metro Charleston locations of King Street Grille, which are also co-owned by Roethlisberger and restaurateur Scott Kier. The two men also appear poised to open a King Street Grille location in Pittsburgh.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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CITY TALK: Last week's transportation plan leaves out local priorities

Mon, 01/18/2016 - 10:41pm

Transportation spending is one of the most frustrating, most boring and most important issues I’ve been following for the last 15 years.

You can go ahead and yell at me about it, but I’m still glad I supported the doomed TSPLOST in 2012. The regional 1 percent sales tax would have mandated the completion of a list of locally selected transportation projects.

There was considerable controversy about some items that made the final TSPLOST list — like widening Interstate 16 east of Interstate 95 and removing the I-16 flyover — but many of the budgeted projects were seen as necessary, such as improvements to U.S. 80 on the way to Tybee.

Of course, even if the Savannah region had passed the TSPLOST in 2012, we still would have seen last year’s major statewide tax increases for transportation spending. That’s because the Atlanta area also rejected TSPLOST, and tax-averse state officials had little choice but to hammer through a bill so they could address problems in and around Georgia’s largest city.

As I noted last year, the political dynamics resulted in a loss of local control.

Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal and state officials released a list of projects that will be funded by new and existing taxes. There is a nod to transparency with the release of a searchable database at the Georgia Department of Transportation website (http://www.garoads.org).

As expected, a huge chunk of the new revenues will go toward projects in metro Atlanta.

Yes, there are 291 projects listed for Chatham County. State funding has been identified for a variety of projects that will serve the ports, such as improvements to Hwy. 21 and Dean Forest Road.

The state will pay for a variety of other items too, but federal funding will be required for many projects, including improvements to the road to Tybee, which includes the replacement and widening of the bridges at Bull River and Lazaretto Creek.

The $85 million project also would add safe shoulders to the stretch of road between the bridges, in addition to other improvements.

When will that federal funding come through the pipeline? There is $3 million in preliminary engineering projected for 2017, but no date has been projected for construction.

If TSPLOST had passed, we would have had dedicated funding and a clear timetable for that project, which many of us see as a critical public safety need.

So where do we go from here? It’s possible state officials will eventually revive a scaled down version of TSPLOST, but until then we’ll likely see many projects languish.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: 39 Rue de Jean hits the ground running

Sat, 01/16/2016 - 11:33pm

The opening of 39 Rue de Jean, the latest venture by Charleston-based Holy City Hospitality, was delayed for so long that I occasionally forgot the French restaurant was even coming to Savannah.

But 39 Rue de Jean finally opened in November, and a friend and I finally made a visit for dinner. We found both the food and service stellar.

39 Rue de Jean is at 605 West Oglethorpe Ave. in the northeast corner of the sprawling Embassy Suites, which is just north of the SCAD Museum of Art and across Oglethorpe from the Joe Murray Rivers Jr. Intermodal Transit Center.

It seems that many readers of this column have not seen the extensive development in that area west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but you can remedy that with a trip to Savannah’s newest French restaurant.

We entered via the corner at Oglethorpe Avenue, but the hostess stand is adjacent to the hotel lobby. We had made a reservation via Open Table and were promptly seated at a comfortable, quiet booth for two in the bar area.

It will be interesting to see if the bar business picks up. I can imagine dropping by for mussels or sushi, but the bar was almost completely quiet on the night we were there.

Chef Drue Longo’s menu has obvious similarities to the menu for the Charleston location of 39 Rue de Jean, but it’s clear that Longo will be routinely experimenting with new dishes and preparations. I’m excited to see how the menu evolves.

While we were still deciding on our main courses, we split an order of mussels in a cauliflower cream sauce ($14). I would have been happy just eating mussels all night — they can be prepared in six different ways — but that wouldn’t have made this a very interesting column.

So often, mussels can be slightly overcooked and can get a little rubbery. But the ones we ordered were perfect.

Next up for me was a fried goat cheese salad ($11), which had some lovely greens and was much larger than I anticipated. At my server’s suggestion, I had duck confit added to the salad – a highly recommended option that turns the dish into a meal.

For my main course, I had the fish of the day (market price varies), a red snapper prepared with the head on and served upright, as if it had just been swimming moments before. Another beautifully prepared dish.

My dinner companion had the wild mushroom crepes ($19), which were as rich and flavorful as one might expect.

We certainly didn’t need dessert after all that food, but we split a scrumptious chocolate pot de crème.

39 Rue de Jean also has a really nice and not overly large cocktail menu. If you’re a brown liquor drinker, I would especially recommend the Bourbon Nouveau. There is an extensive wine list.

The prices were surprisingly moderate, I thought. We didn’t order anything from the sushi bar, but most of the rolls are under $10. Most of the entrees are priced from $24 to $28.

Since we ate and drank so much and so well, our bill for two came to $165, but you could have a fine meal for dramatically less than what we spent.

The restaurant’s marketing led me to expect an intimate space that might feel like a stereotypical French bistro, but the newness of the materials and sheer scale of the interior give 39 Rue de Jean a more contemporary feel.

As I said at the top, 39 Rue de Jean is part of Holy City Hospitality. That restaurant group’s Charleston properties include 39 Rue de Jean at 39 John Street, plus the nearby restaurants Coast Bar and Grill, Michael’s on the Alley, Victor Social Club, Vincent Chicco’s and Virginia’s on King.

We have some successful restaurant groups in Savannah, for sure, but I don’t think we have any that own so many properties in such a dense cluster as Holy City Hospitality owns near the intersection of King and John streets in Charleston.

Longtime readers will already see that 39 Rue de Jean furthers a number of trends for the Savannah restaurant scene. As local tastes change and as culinary tourism grows, we are going to see increasingly ambitious entrepreneurs and chefs enter the Savannah market.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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CITY TALK: Solid process needed in search for city manager

Mon, 01/11/2016 - 11:14pm

So Savannah is about to do something with which we don’t have much experience.

We are about to launch a search for a new city manager.

The last search, which resulted in the hiring of Rochelle Small-Toney, was seen as problematic almost from the beginning of the process. Small-Toney, who already was acting city manager, seemed to have the inside track from the start and seemed to benefit from the desire for a black person to fill the city’s top administrative spot.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. We may not have conducted a competent city manager search the last time around, but other cities have done just fine. So let’s consider the process in places like Roanoke, Va., which in 2010 hired Savannah’s excellent and trustworthy assistant city manager, Chris Morrill.

And let’s get expectations in line with reality. The average tenure of city managers around the country is something under eight years, so we’re likely to have highly qualified candidates who have at some point been dismissed from previous jobs. It’s like the world of top coaches.

 

City schedules bike ban meeting

Savannah city officials have scheduled a meeting for 6 p.m. on Jan. 14 at the Savannah Civic Center to discuss the proposed ban on bicycles and skateboards in Forsyth Park.

After I questioned the wisdom and the practicality of a ban in a recent column, I asked the police department for information on the “collisions” cited by the city on its Web page about the ban, but metro spokeswoman Eunicia Baker could find no records of reports dealing with bicycle accidents in Forsyth Park in 2015.

Way back in 2013, interim police chief Julie Tolbert sent a memo to city manager Stephanie Cutter, which you can find at http://savannahnow.com/memo-police-chief-tolbert-city-manager-cutter, detailing the problems of more stringent enforcement targeting bicyclists in the park.

She noted the lack of police resources, the potential public relations nightmare and the fact that there had been no reported bicycle accidents in Forsyth Park in the previous year.

As the public debate moves along, it’s worth keeping in mind that the center pathway of Forsyth Park does not seem to meet the legal definition of a “sidewalk,” which is a path that runs alongside a street.

It’s also worth keeping in mind, as I noted before, that the proposed ban would effectively shut down the Bull Street corridor to cyclists and could push riders onto Whitaker and Drayton streets, which are simply not designed for safe cycling. Those streets aren’t even designed for safe driving.

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: Looking back with nostalgia, ahead with optimism

Sat, 01/09/2016 - 11:52pm

I don’t have any data to back up what I’m about to say, but it seems like Savannah has a disproportionate number of really old businesses. I’m talking about businesses that are still doing pretty much the same thing they were doing generations ago, often by members of the same families that founded them.

Ambos Seafoods has been around since 1870 or earlier. The roots of Bradley’s Lock and Key go back to 1883. Levy Jewelers was founded in 1900.

Friedman’s Fine Art, which recently left downtown for a spot on Eisenhower Drive, was founded in 1902.

Johnny Harris Restaurant, which seems likely to close or move in 2016, dates to 1924. The Crystal Beer Parlor had a couple of brief stretches of being closed, but it dates to 1933. The Critz car dealership has been around since 1938. Southern Motors was also established over 75 years ago.

That list is off the top of my head, and I’m using the dates that the businesses themselves cite. I’m sure there are other local companies that have been around for just as long.

But most businesses don’t have anything close to tenures like those, no matter how much they are loved by their regular patrons.

Sometimes the business owners themselves are ready to do something else, but sometimes outside circumstances force businesses to close no matter what the owners do. Sometimes, of course, bad management plays a role.

Or, sometimes, the closing is the result of good management, like when Blick Art Materials acquired the locally owned Primary Art Supply.

We often see a cluster of small business closures at the first of the year, which is an especially volatile time for restaurants and bars because of the timing of state alcohol license renewals.

Pinkie Master’s Lounge had been on Drayton Street for about 60 years, but it has closed, at least at that location.

I loved going to Pinkie’s for years, but I only went there once in 2015.

Many years ago, I was actually kicked out of Pinkie’s as soon as soon as I walked in because I was with someone who had been banned from the place. But that experience, and some other odd experiences, only made me like the joint better.

To my mind, the status of Pinkie’s as a “dive bar” had been problematic for a long time. Years ago, when a former editor asked for a list of my favorite downtown dive bars, I told him that there weren’t any left.

I essentially quit going to Pinkie’s about five years ago after some management decisions, but I was glad that the place continued to contribute so much to the local cultural landscape.

A promising new bar, which I’m sure you’ll be hearing about soon, is in the works for the former Pinkie’s spot.

Juarez, at the corner of Broughton and Price streets, has also closed after 22 years in business. I was a regular customer there years ago, and it’s hard to describe how comfortable that spot seemed when Savannah was a very different town.

Hang Fire closed up shop at 37 Whitaker St. last week. The bar had obviously been doing great business and had become a key player in the Savannah music scene, but an ongoing dispute with upstairs neighbors over sound contributed to the closure.

It’s worth noting, however, that Hang Fire’s Wes Daniels appeared last week before City Council for an alcohol permit for El-Rocko Lounge at 117 Whitaker St., and co-owner Heather Flagle apparently has something in the works too.

So, while many of us are sorry to see Hang Fire close after a great decade, we might have better things on the horizon.

Am I just looking for the proverbial silver lining?

Vibrant cities are like living organisms. They grow (or not), change and adapt to new conditions.

When the changes result in the closing of businesses that we’ve loved, it’s easy to get nostalgic and feel like the city is changing for the worse.

But if we have appropriate zoning in place, have preservation rules where needed and follow sound urban development policies, we’ll see plenty of new businesses every year.

And some of those new businesses will still be around decades from now and will seem like they’ve been there forever.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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CITY TALK: Jepson Center worth a visit for art, food

Mon, 01/04/2016 - 7:25pm

On Sunday afternoon, a steady stream of visitors flowed through the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts.

Most of the visitors seemed to be tourists — the city was crawling with them through the holidays — and most were headed for the Jepson’s major exhibition “Monet and American Impressionism.”

That exhibit, which has four spectacular paintings by Claude Monet in addition to dozens of works by American artists, closes on Jan. 24. So if you’ve been putting off a visit, you’re quickly running out of time.

I was especially enthralled by some of the works that depicted urban scenes, including some dense and grand Manhattan streetscapes of a century ago.

If you check out the impressionist exhibition, be sure to leave time for other current shows, including the collages of Mickalene Thomas and the 21st annual “I Have Marks to Make,” which features artwork by participants in Savannah area rehab programs, by citizens served through various health and human services organizations and by students in the Savannah-Chatham Public Schools Department of Exceptional Children.

While I was there, I renewed my Telfair membership, which has to be one of the best cultural bargains in town. I routinely pay more than $45 for meals and for tickets to shows, but that same $45 will get free admission for a year to the Jepson, the Telfair Academy and the Owens-Thomas House.

Of course, you don’t need to be a member to check out the Jepson Café, which has served excellent food over the last decade despite a revolving door of management.

Savannah Coffee Roasters took over the café late last year, and on my first trip I was pleased to find a diverse menu with most items priced at $9.95.

I opted for the chicken curry sandwich, which had a nice combination of scallions, pineapple and almonds. I had several slices of apples added for just 50 cents. In addition to several other sandwiches and salads, there are a few hot items, including a turkey burger and a chicken and mushroom pot pie.

I love eating at the Jepson Café, especially when there is an available table that overlooks the atrium, but I tend to forget that the restaurant is even there. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but the problem of visibility might explain the steady turnover in management.

Perhaps with their downtown location just a few blocks south on Liberty Street, Savannah Coffee Roasters will be poised to promote the museum café in fresh ways.

It’s been a year of turmoil in Savannah, and 2016 might be another one. You might find that a trip to the Jepson can steady the nerves.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: Proposed alcohol ordinance rewrite faces new Savannah City Council

Sat, 01/02/2016 - 11:09pm

The city of Savannah’s proposed rewrite of the alcohol ordinance was back in the news last week. It’s one of the pieces of unfinished business that the new mayor and council will have to consider in 2016.

The proposed ordinance has many moving parts, and I can’t possibly look at all the issues in a single column.

I have a lot of contacts in the food and beverage industry, and I’d say that there seemed to be broad support for the concepts in the draft that city officials released in February 2015. Those concepts weren’t presented to City Council until July, one of numerous lengthy delays in the process.

At that workshop session, aldermen raised surprisingly few detailed objections, but several seemed to think the ordinance needed much more work.

So, here we are.

One element of the new ordinance would allow 18- to 20-year-olds into establishments that offer live entertainment and serve more alcohol than food. It’s a straightforward provision similar to one that Savannah once had.

There was considerable discussion about that provision at council’s workshop session last July, but none of the council members expressed clear opposition. If anything, it sounded like there might be a push to make the proposed ordinance even less restrictive so enforcement could be more easily streamlined.

At that July workshop session, sixth district alderman Tony Thomas asked, “Are there any other cities that allow under age in Georgia in bars?”

Assistant city attorney Jennifer Herman noted that 18- to 20-year-olds are allowed into live performances in bars under state law, but she could not give a full answer to Thomas’s question.

Well, Athens, Atlanta, Macon and Statesboro are among the cities that allow 18- to 20-year-olds into venues that those “kids” would not be allowed to patronize in Savannah. There are also 18-plus or even all-ages provisions at venues that serve alcohol in two nearby cities that compete for business with Savannah: Charleston and Jacksonville.

Freebird Live in Jacksonville serves alcohol but no food, and most shows are open to patrons 12 and older.

The 40 Watt Club in Athens offers a full bar and serves no food, but most shows in the 500-capacity venue are 18 and over.

Venues that allow patrons under 21 typically either use wristbands or hand stamps so anyone who is under age can be easily identified. It’s a system that works just fine in cities all over the country.

By contrast, consider the restrictiveness of Savannah’s current ordinance. Dollhouse Productions has only a beer and wine license, but when the venue hosted performances by Art Garfunkel in 2014, those under 21 were barred from attending.

Some of the problems with our current alcohol ordinance stem from ill-advised changes over the last decade.

About a decade ago, Savannah officials — nice folks who apparently had little familiarity with area nightlife or with the local music scene — became convinced they had to ban anyone under 21 from most venues because of crime concerns.

At the time, I wrote in this column that the ordinance change left a huge loophole for restaurants that serve alcohol and offer live entertainment, and of course a year later city officials made the ordinance more labyrinthine by adding a new “hybrid” designation.

But the problem of classifications wasn’t be solved by that change, which also spurred the creation of completely unregulated house venues, and soon city officials realized that there were whole categories of businesses that weren’t covered under existing law.

“Savannah city officials, after encountering several instances where outdated or conflicting regulations weren’t keeping up with current market situations, are reviewing the city’s alcohol ordinance,” wrote reporter Lesley Conn in this newspaper in January 2013 (yes, 2013). “They hope to have revisions before City Council for approval in about two months.”

Two months was obviously an overly aggressive timeline given the scope of the eventual rewrite, but it’s now three years later, and we still haven’t dealt with the commonsense issues raised in that 2013 article.

City officials certainly didn’t help the process with their quickly aborted 2014 proposal to ban most people under 21 after 10 p.m. from restaurants that serve alcohol.

A number of other issues might cause some friction among members of the new city council, including a previous proposal to extend the boundary for to-go cups.

In the most recent draft, city officials seem to have retreated from the idea of expanding the zone south along the Bull Street corridor to include Forsyth Park. That’s probably a safe political position if the city wants to see a new ordinance passed.

At the same time, many of us would like to see the zone expanded much more dramatically than was originally proposed.

In upcoming columns, I’ll take a look at a number of other issues that our new council will have to consider in 2016.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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CITY TALK: Learning lessons from New Orleans

Mon, 12/28/2015 - 8:44pm
I spent most of Christmas week in New Orleans. I didn’t hear a single siren.   In fact, I didn’t even see a police officer or cruiser over the course of five days.    New Orleans is a high-crime city like Savannah, and you can certainly find ugly pockets of violence.   I typed a location east of City Park into Slate’s interactive page for shootings and found a neighborhood with 50 shootings over the past year, including 21 fatal ones, within a one-mile radius.   Terrible neighborhood, right?   I live a few blocks south of Forsyth Park. When I type my address into Slate’s shooting tool, I come up with 49 shootings within a mile radius in the past year, including 10 fatalities.   Terrible neighborhood, right?   Of course, New Orleans is larger than Savannah, and the city meanders between the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain. Because of that geography, there are many neighborhoods that seem, at least to a Savannahian, largely insulated from violent crime.    No gunshots, no sirens, no helicopters.   You won’t find many — or any? — neighborhoods within the Savannah city limits that can boast of that kind of isolation.   Perhaps the size and the geography contribute to the seeming lack of urgency about crime in New Orleans. Much of the violence is “over there” — out of sight and out of earshot, unless you’re unlucky enough to live in the midst of it.    My sister lives near Tulane University, and we made a couple of trips to Riccobono’s Panola Street Café, a breakfast and lunch spot on a corner in the middle of her neighborhood.   The café has no off-street parking and recently won unanimous planning commission approval for a liquor license. Some neighbors have expressed concerns about the change, but there has been nothing like the brouhaha we’d see in Savannah over a similar request.    I’ve written before about New Orleans’ embrace of mixed-use zoning, but I’m reminded again on each trip about the value of true neighborhood businesses.    And I’m reminded again about New Orleans’ embrace of the inherent unpredictability of cities. It’s an attitude that has encouraged entrepreneurship, creativity and maybe even some fun.    Savannah Development and Renewal Authority executive director Kevin Klinkenberg touched on a few of these qualities in a recent column for this newspaper.    “Each block can speak to our unique local culture, our diversity and the best we have to offer one another,” Klinkenberg said of Savannah. “We have so much local ability to add art, color, greenery and even whimsy to many more of our streets.”   If you’re an observer of Savannah life and politics, the last year has likely felt like a chore. Maybe in 2016, we can inject a little more fun into the experience, one step at a time.      City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401. By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSLead photo: Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Numbers tell story of crime, jobs

Sat, 12/26/2015 - 11:53pm

City Talk turned 15 years old recently. I’m 51. Freaky, right?

I’ve written about many topics over the years, and I’ve cited all sorts of numbers and statistics in this space. I’m rarely shocked by the data that comes across my desk.

But I never imagined that crime would spike as much as it did in 2015.

As I write this, the most statistics posted to the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department website include crimes through the week ending Dec. 12. As of that date, we had 52 homicides in the SCMPD jurisdiction in 2015, up from 29 in the same period in 2014 and 28 in the same period in 2013.

The violence has been especially bad over the last couple of months. We had 17 homicides in the eight weeks prior to Dec. 12. That’s an average of about two per week, although the relentless bad news might have made the rate seem even higher. By contrast, in 2014 we averaged two homicides every four weeks.

As of Dec. 12, we had 290 aggravated assaults involving guns in 2015. Compare that to 187 in the same time period in 2014.

These are extreme increases, and I haven’t seen any especially convincing explanations for the surge in violence. Sure, there could be a combination of factors in play, but I think we still need deeper analysis.

It’s also worth noting that we’ve been seeing a dramatic increase in auto thefts. Through Dec. 12, 1068 vehicles had been stolen in 2015 compared to 699 in the same time period in 2014.

It was great to see arrests and indictments for homicides in recent days, but I was also excited to see the SCMPD recently shut down a chop shop on West 54th Street. Of course, these are all just numbers, and they don’t tell the story of the tragedies and the sorrows produced by so much crime and violence.

Savannah has had a high crime rate for many decades, but maybe the deteriorating situation in 2015 will set the stage for real improvements in policing and in community awareness.

In all my years as a columnist, I’ve never seen the community so galvanized into finding ways to stem the violence. Police Chief Jack Lumpkin and the rest of the SCMPD deserve high praise for their launch of new strategies and initiatives. Now we need to see results.

Strong employment gains as 2015 comes to a close

Despite the alarmingly high crime rate, the Savannah area economy keeps chugging along. Just imagine how much stronger the economy might be if residents were less worried about crime.

The Coastal Empire Economic Monitor published by the Armstrong State University Center for Regional Analysis showed activity leveling off in the third quarter of 2015, but the leading index points to continued economic growth at least through the middle of next year.

The most recent employment numbers are solid.

In November, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Bryan and Effingham counties) had 814 initial claims for unemployment insurance, down from 847 in November 2014.

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area had 173,900 non-farm payroll jobs in November, up 2.4 percent from 169,900 in November 2014. That rate of increase is considerably faster than the rate of population growth.

The gain is especially impressive given the estimates showing a 1.6 percent decline over the past year in employment in leisure and hospitality and no growth in government employment.

The year-over-year increase in local payroll employment was spurred largely by an increase of 2,400 jobs in professional and business services. We also added 700 manufacturing jobs over the past year – a promising gain.

The unemployment rate for the Savannah metro area fell to 4.9 percent in November, down from 6.1 percent a year earlier.

The most recent recession officially ended in the summer of 2009. Can we finally say that the local recovery is over?

There is a cautionary note in these otherwise impressive employment estimates. The Savannah metro area, like much of the state of Georgia, has seen a contraction in the size of the civilian labor force. As I’ve noted here before, the trend has been quite pronounced in a number of Georgia cities, and we’ll be keeping an eye on those estimates each month.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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CITY TALK: Proposed Forsyth bike ban will hurt police efforts

Mon, 12/21/2015 - 11:25pm

“Why are we building an arena when crime is out of control?”

“Who cares about a Cultural Arts Center when so many people are getting shot?”

A lot of my friends asked questions like these in recent months. I think the answer is pretty easy.

The city of Savannah has many long-term projects with dedicated funding streams and with ample staff to deal with them. Yes, crime should be our priority, but efficient municipal governments need to do a lot of things well, simultaneously.

But, really, why are we thinking about banning bikes in Forsyth Park when our police force is inadequately staffed and crime is so high?

Without providing any details, documentation or data on alleged collisions, city officials announced last week that they’re considering a total ban on bikes and other foot-propelled vehicles in Forsyth. They have no plan for where those dozens or hundreds of cyclists will be diverted, and many riders find Drayton and Whitaker streets dangerous.

So City Manager Stephanie Cutter and her administration want to effectively end bicycle access in the Bull Street corridor for all cyclists at all times of day. (For what it’s worth, the last time I rode through Forsyth was at 8 p.m. on a Thursday, and I saw five other people in the entire park.)

If the city implements the ban, what will happen?

Police officers will have to spend hundreds of hours in the coming months enforcing the ordinance.

The ban won’t only cost police time. Officers are currently trying to build better relationships with the community, but they would be having one negative encounter after another and creating massive amounts of ill will.

Or maybe the police simply won’t have the resources to implement the ban, and we will just end up with another unenforced and unenforceable ordinance.

If officers should somehow manage to divert all the cyclists out of the park, then we could end up with hundreds of cyclists per day riding on Drayton and Whitaker, despite the obvious hazards. Does anyone really want that to happen?

Yes, there are certainly some bicyclists who go way too fast through Forsyth Park. There are a variety of rational ways of dealing with the issue, and I’d love to be writing this column about those ideas.

But city officials haven’t created a mechanism for public discussion of ways to solve the problem. They’ve entered the fray with a one-sided proposal, much as they did with the first drafts of the proposed food truck and alcohol ordinances.

“Accommodating bicycles in our community is a priority, and Savannah’s Bicycle Friendly Status is important,” City Manager Cutter said last week. Absent a comprehensive plan that accommodates bicycles, that statement is ironic, to say the least.

Merry Christmas.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: Emergent Savannah takes stock of past, considers future

Sat, 12/19/2015 - 11:42pm

Last Monday evening, The Sentient Bean was packed for Emergent Savannah’s exploration of “Savannahness.”

Founded about a year ago, Emergent Savannah describes itself as “a collaboration of local activists who believe that Savannah is capable of evolving into a more intentional community.”

Emergent Savannah’s events are optimistic and focused on the future. The organization has already established a track record of looking for common-sense solutions to recognized problems and has given a new platform for community engagement for young adults.

Many Emergent Savannah supporters are deeply engaged with the arts and are investing their time and money in long-neglected neighborhoods.

Last week’s event was part of Emergent Savannah’s series Monday Means Community. If you haven’t attended any of those gatherings in 2015, you should check one out in 2016.

So what is “Savannahness”?

The event didn’t try to give a comprehensive answer to that question, thank goodness, but organizers invited a half dozen “storytellers and provocateurs” who read texts that touched on a variety of topics ranging from the sensual to the political.

Writer Zach Powers shared some moving reflections that hit upon a key theme of this column over the years.

“Savannah is one big public space,” Powers said at the beginning of his narrative.

The city has traditionally had many informal gathering places, including squares, parks, coffee houses and neighborhood bars. It’s a city made for wandering, for making random connections and sudden re-connections. We don’t want to lose that sense.

Writer and photographer Elizabeth Rhaney, a former student of mine at Armstrong State University, embraced Savannah as “a collection of eclectic personalities, souls and ideas.”

Karen Wortham of Journey by Faith alluded to some of Savannah’s biggest challenges, including crime, but closed with an upbeat family saying: “Take the good with the bad and make it great.”

Author and professor Chad Faries read several poems that captured the sensuality of languid Savannah nights.

Writer and musician Anna Chandler shared her memories of the late Robyn Reeder, the owner of Primary Art Supply and Civvies New & Recycled Clothing who inspired so many people over the years.

Activist Tom Kohler, best known as coordinator at Chatham-Savannah Citizen Advocacy, wondered if Savannah is “developing into no one’s hometown.” He noted that long-term thinking is more likely to focus on quality of life, while short-term thinking is more likely to emphasize quick economic gains.

Kohler repeated three key words: authenticity, accessibility and sustainability.

And then Clinton Edminster, founder of Art Rise Savannah and owner of Starlandia Supply, closed the program by leading the audience in singing “Savannah Baby,” an inspired, topical version of Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.”

All that, and the program was still over in an hour. Many attendees then enjoyed more conversation around the corner at the lounge at American Legion Post 135.

With the bruising city runoff election in the rearview mirror, this seems like a good time for thinking more broadly about the Savannah we want to see.

As one of Savannah’s resident contrarians, I would suggest there’s a delicate balance here between vision and nostalgia.

I’ve only lived in Savannah for 20 years, but I’m crushed by the prospect of Johnny Harris closing or relocating, and I’d hate to see the existing building razed for other development.

But families who have toiled in the trenches for decades have the right to sell their businesses and move on.

It’s easy to criticize the national chains coming to Broughton Street and the loss of some of the local quirkiness in the heart of downtown, but Broughton had all sorts of major retailers before being largely abandoned in the last half of the 20th century.

And the escalating rents for downtown retail and residential spaces have fueled investment in other areas. Twenty years ago, many of the young adults at Monday’s meeting would have been living in the Historic District, but those folks today are on the Eastside, in Thunderbolt and south of Forsyth Park.

Sure, I’d like to see all sorts of policies in place to enhance quality of life and further protect some of Savannah’s public spaces, historic buildings and quirky traits.

At the same time, we need to understand that vibrant, diverse cities like Savannah are dynamic, ever-changing places, as evidenced by the individuals Emergent Savannah brought to the stage.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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CITY TALK: Shootings in Savannah's Ellis Square problem for whole city

Mon, 12/14/2015 - 11:21pm

I was in Ellis Square at 1:45 a.m. on Saturday. I had just left The Jinx on West Congress Street after the release show for the new record by the local rock band Niche.

It was especially quiet for a balmy Friday night in the City Market area.

As I learned the next morning, trouble was brewing nearby.

Shots had allegedly been fired inside Club Rain, which is across Bay Street from City Hall and the Hyatt Regency. The violent situation then spilled over into a gunfight in the Ellis Square Parking Garage. Four people were shot.

In early August, a 3 a.m. shooting in Ellis Square injured five people. Since that incident occurred minutes after last call, there’s a fair bet the shooters had been inside bars while armed.

Georgia’s Safe Carry Protection Act, which went into effect in summer of 2014, allows concealed-carry permit holders to take guns into bars unless establishments forbid the practice.

Despite the permissiveness of Georgia’s so-called “guns everywhere law,” Savannah city leadership has a number of tools at their disposal to discourage bars from allowing guns.

For example, in spring 2014, Savannah City Council revoked the alcohol license at Dosha Ultra Bar & Lounge because of problems with violence.

Nightclubs could also be forced to use metal detectors, which would in theory discourage patrons from bringing guns inside. Of course, leaving guns in cars can produce problems, too.

I’m downtown late at night on a regular basis, and I never feel any fear, but I’m not arguing with those who are afraid of being in certain parts of town at certain times of the day or night.

Still, downtown’s streets and squares would certainly feel safer if there were a heftier police presence late at night. Foot patrols might be especially effective.

I was back in the Ellis Square area about midnight on Saturday, and there were many dozens of people milling about. In the 20 minutes or so that I was talking with friends on the sidewalk of Congress Street, I saw one police cruiser roll by but didn’t see any other police presence.

Of course, our police force is understaffed, and officers on the late shift are generally responding to calls. They don’t have time to wander the streets.

But there seems little doubt that a more visible police presence could quash some problems before they even arise.

Obviously, the stakes are high here for tourism and for quality of life. If shootings become routine in the entertainment district, we will see many other problems arise.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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CITY TALK: Streetscape plans could impact downtown Savannah

Sat, 12/12/2015 - 10:23pm

In recent days, we’ve heard some important updates about long-discussed projects that will alter the streetscape of greater downtown Savannah.

It’s curious that all this news has come to the fore immediately after the Dec. 1 runoff, but it’s unlikely earlier discussion of the changes would have impacted the final outcomes in the races for mayor, alderman at-large and second district alderman.

As Eric Curl reported last week, the city of Savannah is planning a $27.5 million bond issue to cover some of the costs of the ambitious streetscape overhaul, which has been in the works for a long time.

One of the most interesting components of the plan is the proposed staircase at the north end of Montgomery Street.

Right now, a steep, well-worn, dusty footpath connects the intersection of Montgomery and Williamson streets to River Street.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact that an inviting stairway will have for pedestrian connectivity in the northwest portion of the Historic District.

Imagine that you’re on foot in the City Market area and headed for River Street. Currently, your options are limited.

You can go a block out of your way and take Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Or you can work your way to the Jefferson Street corridor and take the infamous stone stairs of death. Or you can head all the way over to Barnard Street.

The poor pedestrian connectivity has contributed to the woes of West River Street for many years, and it’s long past time to fix the problem.

The planned staircase probably will be of particular benefit to the major hotel projects at the west end of River Street.

There will also be property tax funded infrastructure improvements at the River Street level, including the extension of the Riverwalk adjacent to the Plant Riverside hotel project.

But, as I have noted in this space a year ago, I fear that the ambitious plans for the waterfront could ultimately shortchange River Street itself. If the improvements encourage all the pedestrians to stay close to the water, the businesses on the south side of West River Street might not see the additional foot traffic that they might reasonably expect.

The needs are different on Broughton Street. Sure, there are sidewalks that run the length of Broughton Street, but key stretches of those sidewalks are just plain ugly.

And the city of Savannah appears ready to change a well intentioned but misguided policy of investing more heavily in the Broughton streetscape from Lincoln Street eastward.

The late Robyn Reeder, co-owner of Primary Art Supply and a consultant for Blick Art Materials, was the first one to put the problem on my radar screen. The 300 block of East Broughton Street has seen some dramatic changes in recent years, including the ongoing restoration of the Berrien House (more on that project soon), but the block doesn’t have the same public amenities that you’ll find immediately west.

If we’re going to rethink the Broughton streetscape, we should look all the way east to the old Kehoe Iron Works, which is currently being restored and reimagined.

The city also has plans to address other downtown corridors, but the real problem spot that’s lurking ahead is Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

There’s a safe, attractive crossing for pedestrians on MLK near Ex Libris Bookstore between Oglethorpe Avenue and Liberty Street, but the rest of the crossings seem perilous.

I’ve even heard anecdotal reports of tourists staying in hotels on the west side of MLK who choose to drive across the boulevard rather than walk. Many pedestrians just don’t feel safe because of the speeding cars and long crosswalks.

And this is the point in the column when many drivers get mad.

Hey, I drive around town a lot too, but we are going to continue to see more pedestrians and bicyclists in the downtown area with each passing year. For decades, pedestrians and bicyclists have sacrificed their own safety and comfort to appease automobile drivers, but the balance is shifting. If we don’t make some of the hazardous pedestrian crossings safer, we’re asking for a catastrophic accident.

In theory, some of those pedestrian improvements along MLK could be part of the West Downtown Urban Redevelopment Plan, which was also in the news last week.

That plan could lead to a variety of changes to the blocks west of MLK and north of Oglethorpe Avenue, with the intention of making those various commercial and residential areas “a seamless part of downtown Savannah.”

But that goal simply won’t happen if MLK remains a dividing line and remains so inhospitable to pedestrians.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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CITY TALK: CAT scandal spotlights lack of transparency

Mon, 12/07/2015 - 10:18pm

After reading last week about the federal indictment of the Chatham Area Transit executive director and maintenance director for mail fraud and extortion, I went to http://www.catchacat.org to look at recent financial information.

Under the ironically named menu item “Transparency,” you can find budgets, audited financial statements and legislative agendas for the last seven fiscal years.

Or, rather, in theory you could find those things, if they were all there.

There are no posted budgets for fiscal years 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2015. There are no audited financial statements for fiscal years 2012 and 2015.

The Web page warns that some files are so large they might take some time to open, but the FY 2016 proposed operating budget is just one page.

Under revenues, the current year operating budget lists passenger fares of $3.175 million, but the numbers aren’t broken down by passes, individual fares or other categories that would be useful for the public to examine.

CAT’s bike-share program is expected to raise a mere $30,000 in revenue in the current fiscal year — less than $100 a day — but there’s no breakdown of the revenue from memberships vs. hourly rentals.

The proposed 2016 capital fund budget on the CAT website provides even less detail, if that’s possible. There is $2.9 million budgeted for “fleet rehabilitation” but no breakdown of how those dollars will be spent.

There is an oddly specific $43,762 budgeted in the current fiscal year for expansion of the bike-share program, but I can’t find any information on the website indicating precisely how the program will be expanded.

None of these omissions are necessarily signs of criminal conduct, but it obviously should have raised red flags with the CAT board, CAT’s government partners, the public and the press that a page devoted to transparency should be so shoddily maintained.

We have set a low bar for public officials around here, and our expectations are even lower when it comes to use of technology.

After this latest embarrassment involving suspected corruption, the CAT board members will surely insist that detailed financial information be posted to the website, but let’s hope expectations are raised higher than that.

The recent city election demonstrated the value for campaigns of having robust Web and social media presences, and in the coming years we are certain to have leaders with a better grasp of technology.

Older public officials who rose through the ranks in the 20th century might be intimidated by the demands of the WorldWide Web, but they are obligated to keep up with the times.

Basic transparency is just a starting point.

 

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
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CITY TALK: Impressive turnout boosts challengers in Savannah runoff

Sat, 12/05/2015 - 11:24pm

In last Sunday’s City Talk, I pitched the notion of encouraging more citizens to vote in Savannah elections by switching to the same calendar used for national and countywide elections.

As we discovered last Tuesday, there’s another way to drive turnout in Savannah.

If you’re a city official who wants more people to vote, just frustrate and anger as many of them as you can through poor handling of crime and other issues.

Consider some of the data for individual polling places in last week’s runoff. Please note, by the way, that the numbers for 2015 are still unofficial, but the final tallies will see little if any adjustment from here.

Mayor-elect Eddie DeLoach racked up a 1,200-vote margin over Mayor Edna Jackson at the First Presbyterian Church precinct in Ardsley Park. That’s more than the total number of votes cast there in the 2011 runoff between Jackson and Jeff Felser.

At the Jewish Educational Alliance, 599 people voted in the 2011 mayoral runoff, but 777 cast ballots in 2015.

At my quiet polling place at Bull Street Baptist Church, 230 people voted in the mayoral runoff in 2011, with the ballots split almost evenly between Jackson and Felser. In 2015, there were 350 votes in the mayor’s race, with DeLoach defeating Jackson 231 to 119.

At Williams Court Apartments, which was one of the precincts I highlighted in a recent column about changing demographics south of Forsyth Park, Jackson outpaced Felser 205 to 94 in 2011. Last week, DeLoach led Jackson 195 to 157.

At Rose of Sharon in the Historic District, Felser outpolled Jackson 344 to 87 in the 2011 runoff. In 2015, the precinct went 571 to 81 for DeLoach.

By contrast, consider what happened in Jackson strongholds.

At Butler Elementary School, Jackson beat Felser 539 to 21 in 2011. In 2015, Jackson out polled DeLoach 518 to 42. At the Moses Jackson Center, Jackson beat Felser 259 to 12 in 2011. In 2015, Jackson received 255 votes to DeLoach’s 34.

Similar patterns were repeated throughout the city. In neighborhoods where Jackson had strong support, she generally matched her tally from 2011, but the turnout surged in neighborhoods that voted heavily for DeLoach.

 

Moving from politics to policy

With four new members of City Council — DeLoach plus new aldermen Brian Foster, Bill Durrence and Julian Miller — we could be looking at a difficult stretch in which long-delayed decisions get delayed even more.

Maybe some things need to be delayed.

I hope the new council will immediately hit the pause button on two major projects.

The city of Savannah is poised to build a new Cultural Arts Center on some of the most valuable land in the Historic District. The project was originally — and wisely — conceived as an economic development tool for Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

Also, the arts center was originally conceived with a 500-seat theater that could be a boon for the performing arts in Savannah. That much-needed feature was eliminated during the design process, even though the building will still cost more than $20 million.

Given the lengthy delays, major missteps and large sums already spent, some folks will want to plow ahead with the new Cultural Arts Center at this point even if we have to live for decades with a deeply compromised building.

Yes, more delays would be contentious, but the new council should rethink the removal of the theater and maybe even revisit the site selection, especially since the city still owns the block of Hall Street originally slated for the project.

I hope we’ll also hit the pause button on plans for the city to buy and develop the fairgrounds site.

The city of Savannah has a pretty good track record, at least in my opinion, with large redevelopment projects that provide affordable housing. Sustainable Fellwood and Savannah Gardens dramatically transformed and repopulated rapidly deteriorating housing complexes.

But the fairgrounds project would be development, not redevelopment.

Keep in mind that we have underpopulated neighborhoods throughout the core of the city that would benefit from greater residential density.

Simply put, there should be more study and more public discussion before we launch an affordable housing and mixed-use development in an area that is currently undeveloped. The relatively isolated location seems especially problematic for the proposed inclusion of neighborhood retail.

The new city council will be focused first and foremost on public safety, but plenty of other important items need to be addressed.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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