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CITY TALK: Looking back at our 2009 economy

Mon, 01/16/2017 - 8:08pm

This is the last City Talk column of the Obama years. Can you even remember 2009?

The national economy was in freefall by the time of the 2008 general election, but many Americans couldn’t imagine how much damage the financial crisis and housing bust would do.

The overconfidence was especially prevalent here in the Savannah area, which had been riding high on the housing bubble.

Of course, by the end of 2008, anyone who took a frank, honest look at the data could see that real estate collapse would have ramifications for years.

We didn’t have all the numbers at the time, but the U.S. economy fell into recession at the end of 2007. Throughout 2008, the inventory of properties for sale was climbing perilously, home prices were falling and lenders were under stress.

Despite the clarity of the data, some major players in Savannah continued to tout the resilience of our diversified economy, but the collapse would predictably hurt some of our major sectors, including tourism, private jet sales, real estate speculation, international trade and public sector spending.

By the time of the 2009 inauguration, it was clear that we were looking at a recovery that would take years, but I found that many Savannahians were still overconfident. Or just confused.

Some Obama voters thought a new president would immediately begin a new era. Some entrepreneurs hadn’t yet seen significant declines in their own businesses and thought that Obama’s inauguration brought on the crisis.

Heck, deep into 2009, city officials and many private investors still had confidence that the Savannah River Landing development was poised to move ahead.

The simple reality is that economic trends rarely reverse themselves suddenly. In particular, real estate prices tend to be “sticky” and don’t respond immediately to economic shifts.

Employment is also a lagging indicator of economic conditions. By the time Obama took office, it was inevitable that we would see job losses through much of 2009. Given the depths of those job losses, it was inevitable that it would take several years to get all those jobs back.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that there were winners and losers in the recovery. Savannah was a winner, and so was Atlanta. In general, metro areas with growing populations have strong economies today, but many small towns and rural counties have never really recovered.

Did we learn any lessons from all those experiences? Did we learn the right lessons?

In my upcoming Sunday column, I’ll take a quick look at some of the structural changes in the Savannah economy since 2009.

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: Neighborhood vitality should be part of Savannah vision

Sat, 01/14/2017 - 10:34pm

Savannah City Manager Rob Hernandez has been talking often about vision.

As Katie Nussbaum reported in a recent story for this newspaper, Hernandez told the Savannah Downtown Business Association this his “number one priority is to bring (City Council) together and create a long-term vision for what this community is going to look like in five years and in 25 years.”

“Everything, every activity, every dollar and every person must be connected to that long-term strategic outcome,” Hernandez said. “Tell me where you want to be and what success looks like, and then it’s my job to hopefully get us there.”

As Hernandez steers the conversation toward the bigger picture, I hope citizens will take the opportunity to weigh in.

As a columnist who has been writing about civic issues for many years, I think we need a much clearer focus on neighborhood vitality and quality of life.

Many of our neighborhoods face similar challenges, so it’s worth acknowledging the common ground.

Crime, for example, impacts all of us to some degree. Those of us who live in areas with prevalent street crime face different issues than those who live in places where criminal activity is less visible, but we would all likely lead richer lives if we lived in a city with low or at least declining crime rates.

Many neighborhoods are also hobbled by arcane and problematic zoning regulations. Many neighborhoods would benefit from more forward-looking uses of technology.

Beyond broad issues like those, however, different Savannah neighborhoods need different things to make them more vital and more likely to thrive throughout the 21st century.

I have often discussed the surging commercial investment in my neighborhood south of Forsyth Park, but the long-term health of the neighborhood requires greater residential density, with a serious emphasis on affordable housing.

We also need traffic calming and a better environment for pedestrians.

There are lots of young families with kids in my neighborhood these days, and I cringe every time I see them crossing streets like Drayton and Whitaker, which many drivers treat like urban speedways.

But that’s my neighborhood, not yours.

Many Savannah neighborhoods, especially those built in the automobile area, have more or less the population density for which they were designed.

In those areas, drainage might be a major issue. Or perhaps a key problem is the lack of recreational and sports facilities, which might be significantly remedied by the current proposal to make better use of existing fields and gyms. That proposal seems like a no-brainer.

Some neighborhoods struggle with blight and with absentee landlords, but other neighborhoods have no such problems. Residents of the Landmark Historic District are especially focused right now on tourism growth, and I suspect that issue will rise to the fore in a few other historic neighborhoods, but that won’t be a major concern in most parts of the city.

The quality-of-life issues might vary from one neighborhood to the next, but we could nevertheless have similar processes for addressing the problems.

Identify the issues. Identify ways of addressing them, both short-term and long-term. Establish an action plan.

As we strengthen individual neighborhoods, we also need a clearer vision of neighborhood connectivity.

The balkanization of Savannah’s neighborhoods has roots in segregation, and the existing divisions aren’t going to evaporate overnight, but some of our physical and psychological barriers can be dismantled.

Given the importance of the Bull Street corridor, for example, it seems crazy that from Park Avenue to DeRenne Avenue the street has served as a dividing line between neighborhoods.

On streets like Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard south of Anderson Street, we have a median that discourages residents from simply crossing the street.

One of the reasons that I’ve supported the westside site for a new arena is that the project gives us an opportunity to make physical stronger connections between the western portion of the Landmark Historic District and West Savannah.

Yes, we need to be careful about making quick changes, and residents within neighborhoods won’t always agree on proposed outcomes.

But I think we’ll find more areas of agreement than disagreement, especially if Hernandez can make city government more nimble and responsive.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. 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
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Proposed merger will likely benefit Savannah economy

Mon, 01/09/2017 - 7:22pm

In Sunday’s City Talk, I mentioned the possibility of surprises for the Savannah area economy in 2017.

We got one of those surprises after that column was written but before it was published.

As you probably know by now, the Board of Regents is poised to vote this week on the proposed merger of Georgia Southern University and Armstrong State University.

For the record, I began teaching at Armstrong in the fall of 2000, and I’ve had a full load of four classes per semester for a number of years.

I’m not going to discuss the bureaucratic complexities in this column, but I might occasionally discuss some of the broader economic impacts of the merger.

And it seems extremely likely a GSU-ASU merger would be good news for the Savannah economy and especially for the Southside.

Given the proximity to Savannah’s major employers and myriad cultural offerings, the Armstrong campus seems likely to grow after the merger. That likely means more employees and higher average salaries.

Also, the merger might spur faster physical expansion, with all the attendant spillover benefits.

Some months ago, Armstrong administrators began a master planning process for the campus, and there’s a huge empty field immediately adjacent to the campus along Abercorn Street.

There’s also a large parcel directly across from Armstrong. Commonly called the “triangle site,” the undeveloped land is primarily bounded by Abercorn Street, Middleground Road and Mohawk Street.

About a decade ago, university leaders considered the sale of the triangle site, but that never happened.

How could the campus expand across Abercorn Street? Take a look at Mercer University’s new pedestrian bridge across a wide roadway in Macon. That’s just one design option.

Beyond the potential government investment, the expansion of the campus would likely spur considerable private investment.

Over 1,400 students currently live in Armstrong housing, but the nearby retail landscape doesn’t really reflect that fact. As the campus grows, we’re more likely to see the types of retail stores and restaurants that cater to college students and employees.

Could we see similar growth of the Armstrong campus without a merger? Sure, but a merger will likely create momentum for more investment, resources and possibilities.

Could a merger have the opposite effect? Could it cause the Armstrong campus to shrink? That seems exceedingly unlikely for a host of reasons.

Let me say again that the proposed merger raises many questions and one could identify many drawbacks. But the economic impacts will likely be positive for the Savannah area.

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
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Let's be optimistic about 2017

Sun, 01/08/2017 - 12:05am

Savannah seems to have entered the new year with a curious mix of apprehension and optimism.

Count me among the optimists, although it probably wouldn’t take much to send me to the dark side.

As I’ve argued here before, the U.S. economy is almost certain to fall into a recession within the next few years. If that happens sooner rather than later, we could see a sudden and painful pause in several booming sectors of the local economy. My guess, however, is that the next recession won’t happen this year.

So what will be the big City Talk stories of 2017?

I’ve been closely tracking the local employment boom in recent years, and I’ll continue that work in 2017.

For the past few years, we have been adding jobs at an unsustainable pace that’s considerably faster than the rate of population growth. I’m curious to see if job growth eventually stagnates, which could spell trouble for the local economy, or if we simply return to a slower, more sustainable pace of growth.

City Talk will also be paying close attention to public policy issues that made news in 2016.

Mayor Eddie DeLoach and the current city council have been in office for a year, but City Manager Rob Hernandez has only been on the job for a couple of months. Yes, there were significant public policy accomplishments in 2016, including new alcohol and food truck ordinances, but the heavy lifting is still ahead of us.

It’s vital that Hernandez and the council members find ways to balance tourism growth with residential quality of life throughout the downtown area. I’ve been writing about this general issue and have been publicly advocating for greater residential density in historic neighborhoods for the past 16 years.

We have now hit a tipping point. All signs point to continued growth in tourism, and that means more hotels, which are incentivized in a variety of ways by longstanding public policy.

By the way, I love tourists. I’ve spent a lot of time walking along the Bull Street corridor over the holidays, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see so many international visitors – families from all over the world. It’s wonderful to live in a place that so many people want to visit.

But we need more downtown residents to balance out those additional tourists, and we need reasonable restrictions and requirements for new hotels.

At the same time, we need to incentivize residential construction, including affordable housing, and other types of commercial development, including retail and office space.

It seems very likely that we’ll see a long-planned overhaul of the city’s zoning code in 2017, but we need more than a new zoning ordinance to find the right balance.

Of course, there are many benefits to the ongoing tourism boom, including the boost that those visitors give to the local restaurant scene.

In 2017, we should see the opening of Chef Sean Brock’s Savannah location of Husk, and several prominent local restaurateurs have new projects in the works.

And, of course, crime will be one of the biggest stories this year.

Savannah has historically had a very high crime rate per capita, and the homicide rate climbed even higher in 2015 and 2016.

We’ve been averaging about one homicide per week over the last two years. As I noted in a column near the end of 2016, the number has dropped in recent months, but we’ll need to see a sustained decline just to get back to the bad but average numbers of 2014.

There might also be some upside surprises in 2017.

City Manager Hernandez recently hinted at the possibility of major tech upgrades for the city, but at this point I’d consider it big news if I got timely water bills and could pay them electronically like I’ve been doing with other bills for years.

Investment has been surging in the Bull Street corridor south of Forsyth Park, so maybe 2017 will be the year, at long last, for something good to happen with the old Sears building on Henry Street or with similarly underutilized properties near the core of the city.

As Savannah grows and garners more international attention, we might attract another major manufacturer in 2017.

Or maybe we’ll see the formation of an ambitious community development corporation that will focus on neighborhood development.

Of course, we could see some downside surprises in 2017, but let’s not speculate about those right now. I hope your new year is off to a good start.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. 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
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Hotel fight shows need for long-term strategy

Tue, 01/03/2017 - 7:22pm

Developers of the planned West Elm hotel on Drayton Street recently agreed to limit the proposed building to four stories. That height is allowed under the current map, and the hotel use is also allowed under current zoning.

The hotel developers had wanted to take advantage of a provision in the zoning code that allows some buildings to have an extra story if they have ground floor retail uses, but a five-story structure required a different interpretation of the zoning district.

Responding to widespread concerns about the tourism growth and about the ease with which major developers seem to get variances, members of Savannah City Council balked at making the accommodations needed for the hotel to have five floors, and things were headed into court until the parties agreed to the four-story limit.

S upporters of the height map might be happy with this outcome, but many of us don’t really see a win .

Certainly, we need a height map in the Historic District, but I’ve argued for years that we are often too fixated on building height rather than on the way buildings engage the street.

If you’re a pedestrian, cyclist or driver, you notice length much more than height, so the unbroken expanse of the federal building on Oglethorpe Avenue east of Barnard Street feels much more offensive to the scale of the Historic District than taller buildings such as the Johnson Square Business Center or the DeRenne Apartments.

Viewed from Forsyth Park, a five-story hotel near the intersection of Huntingdon Street would be taller than the Savannah Law School and a couple of other nearby commercial buildings, but the proposed West Elm hotel will be dwarfed by the neighboring Chatham Apartments, one of the tallest buildings in the Historic District.

Also, we want retail activity at street level on key thoroughfares. The additional mix of uses could serve local interests more directly than another hotel used exclusively by tourists.

In limiting West Elm to four stories, we’ve scored one for the integrity of our convoluted zoning codes, but we’re getting a less interestingbuilding than if the developers were allowed the extra floor for retail.

City Manager Rob Hernandez has said that his office will have put forth some new ideas about hotel development soon, and members of City Council seem ready to move ahead with a long-planned zoning overhaul.

As I’ve been arguing in this column for years, we’re going to see more hotel developers looking for land outside the core of the Historic District, and we need clear guidelines in place that achieve a variety of goals.

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: Proposed new 'fee' fraught with problems

Sat, 12/31/2016 - 2:38pm

At last week’s meeting of Savannah City Council, the mayor and aldermen delayed the first reading of an ordinance that would have allowed for a 25-cent fee to be added to every sales tax-eligible transaction over $10 in a portion of downtown.

The ordinance, which was tabled until May with no public discussion, would create a “visitor impact special service district” with the goals of “enhanced public safety, parks and sanitation services in the downtown area, which is heavily impacted by large numbers of visitors.”

We can call this a “fee” all we want, but we typically use that word for much more specific things. For example, the city’s preservation fee is charged for sightseeing tours. Governments establish fees for all sorts of reasons, but this proposed fee is essentially a flat 25-cent sales tax, and I’m going to call it a “tax” in this and future columns.

The new tax would support the expansion of Savannah Serves (http://www.savannahserves.com), with the goal of adding additional ambassadors and police officers in the downtown area.

In the description in last week’s council agenda, city staff cited a specific paragraph of the Georgia Constitution that gives municipalities broad powers to create special districts and impose fees.

Apparently, under the Georgia Constitution, a city council or county commission can, by a simple majority, create a special district and impose a flat sales tax. There are no stated limits on the amount of the tax, the amount of the eligible purchase or the duration of the collection.

In other words, why not charge 50 cents on that $10 transaction? Or a dollar? Or more?

A few Savannah leaders have raised the idea of similar special service districts in other parts of the city, and elected in officials in other Georgia municipalities will surely be tempted too.

Given the strict limits in state law on other forms of sales tax collections, I’m puzzled that local leaders could create this tax through a simple ordinance.

Sure, visitors will pay the new tax, but the burden will fall largely on downtown workers and residents. Some downtown households will wind up paying hundreds of dollars per year for the expansion of Savannah Serves.

As with many flat taxes, folks with lower incomes will be impacted more than those with higher incomes.

There are many reasons to support some of the goals of Savannah Serves, but the current funding plan is fraught with questions, including ones I haven’t raised here.

Supporters of the expanded program don’t seem to understand the widespread opposition to this new tax, and they’re going to spend a lot of political capital if they continue to push the current plan.

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
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: 2016 brought good changes, too

Sat, 12/24/2016 - 4:39pm

Question: How many Savannahians does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Two. One to change the bulb, and another to talk about how we used to do it.

If you’ve lived in Savannah any length of time, you’ve probably heard some variant of that old joke.

Question: How many Savannahians does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Change?

I’ve learned a lot of things about Savannah and Savannahians in the 16 years that I’ve been writing this column.

For one, the vast majority of Savannah residents care deeply about their city and their neighborhoods. That’s true of residents in wealthier communities, and it’s also true of residents in less wealthy ones. It’s true of residents who face societal ills like crime and blight on a daily basis.

I’ve learned that Savannahians value the past and are proud of where they live, but I hear a lot of angst about the city’s future.

Many readers of this column recognize that some things have to change, but some of those folks reflexively oppose any actual changes, for fear that we’ll make problems worse. Some of those fears seem justified, some not.

So, for this Christmas Day column, I’m going to recap a few of the positive changes that we’ve seen in 2016. Clearly, we should honor the past, but we don’t need to retreat into it.

For starters, we have seen booming job growth in 2016. According to the most recent estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor, the local unemployment rate remained almost exactly the same over the last 12 months, but we have almost 10,000 additional workers in the civilian labor force.

As I’ve noted often, the current booms in payroll employment and in labor force participation aren’t sustainable, but the increases are certainly good news.

I routinely see detractors claim that all of those new jobs are low-paying hospitality positions, but that is not true.

We have also seen a surge in investment in several downtown neighborhoods. I got some strange reactions 20 years ago when I told friends that I had bought a house on 32nd Street, but now the Bull Street corridor south of Forsyth Park appears to have turned a corner.

I know many readers are troubled by the recent changes to Broughton Street, but the old commercial strip is busier than it has been in decades. The higher rents on Broughton have contributed to the interest in other corridors.

Yes, we saw high crime in 2016, but the trends have started looking a little better over the last few months. It’s too early to say if the recent declines are indicative of a lasting trend, but there are reasons for optimism. I’ll take a deeper look at some of the data in an upcoming column.

In 2016, we also saw our new mayor and council deal effectively with a number of thorny, long-delayed issues. The city-county police merger was preserved, at least for now, and we enacted important alcohol and food truck ordinances.

Rob Hernandez took over as City Manager in October, and many of us are hopeful that he will bring some innovative ideas to the city.

We also saw continued development of Savannah’s restaurant scene in 2016, and the future looks bright. Several years ago, in a column that angered some readers, I noted that Savannah isn’t a “food town” like, say, Charleston or New Orleans, but that column might need to be revisited and revised.

In 2016, Savannah took a hard hit from Hurricane Matthew, which revealed many problems with our preparedness, but we got lucky that we were on the weak side of the storm.

The collective response to Hurricane Matthew revealed the resilience of residents along the coast. I don’t think anyone is surprised by that resilience, but it has still been heartening to see.

Sure, there are difficult questions facing us, but the positive developments over 2016 suggest that we’re prepared for the future – probably more prepared than we think.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. 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
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: City leaders weigh budget options

Mon, 12/19/2016 - 7:21pm
The city of Savannah has a longstanding policy of providing a small amount of support – far less than 1 percent of the city budget – to social service and arts nonprofits.   In last Tuesday’s City Talk, I argued that the city support should continue for a variety of reasons – as a statement of community values, as a way to encourage innovation and creativity, as a tool for promoting economic vitality.   Due to revenue shortfalls, city staff recently recommended reducing the size of the 2017 grants to these outside organizations.   A passionate contingent of community members opposes those cuts, so this week the members of City Council will consider several budget options proposed by city manager Rob Hernandez and his team. You can read the options for yourself at http://savannahga.gov/2017budgetoptions.   Interestingly, city staff has recommended restoring funding for individual agencies to 2016 levels rather than the 2017 levels recommended a few months ago by the Cultural Affairs Commission. Yes, the mayor and aldermen asked for a return to 2016 levels, but many of us interpreted that as a request for a return to the 2016 total in aggregate, not line by line.   Hernandez is recommending four options for restoring $420,000 of funding for arts and social service nonprofits.   The most straightforward option would be a small hike in the millage rate, which would restore the most recent proposed reductions and eliminate a proposed $1.8 million withdrawal from the city’s reserve funds.   That option probably isn’t politically palatable to a majority of council, but, as a taxpayer myself, I’m more worried about the withdrawal from the city reserves than the approximately $30 increase in my property taxes.   History suggests that it’s highly likely we’ll face a recession in the next few years, and the current council has pledged aggressive funding for public safety initiatives. For those reasons and others, this does not seem like a good time to draw on reserves, and I would dismiss out of hand the option proposed by city staff to increase the withdrawal to approximately $2.2 million.   The other budget options will also be unpalatable to various constituencies. Should we maintain the current level of the freeport inventory tax exemption rather than reduce it as planned? Should we cut funding for new initiatives that Hernandez wants in place or other functions of the city manager’s office?   Hernandez inherited a mess when he took over less than three months ago, and I would like to see what he can do with a fully funded office in his first year.   Like most of you, I have other ideas for both short- and long-term cuts to the city budget, but the calendar has us backed into a corner. And those nonprofit organizations are backed into an even tighter corner.   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: New Montgomery Street apartment brings added density to Historic District

Sat, 12/17/2016 - 9:30pm

As I was taking an evening stroll last week, I noticed for the first time that many of the lights are on at The Bowery Apartments at 515 Montgomery St.

The Bowery isn’t occupied yet, but it will be soon. Some readers will disagree, but I think the complex has an appropriate scale, style and density for the neighborhood. The light-colored bricks and porches make the building feel less massive during daylight hours, and the pacing of windows makes it inviting at night.

The Bowery is on the west side of Montgomery Street between Gaston and Huntingdon streets in an area that for years has been a kind of no-man’s land of underutilized properties and vacant lots. We’re going to see more development on blocks like those, and, as I’ve argued here before, we are going to be facing some tough civic choices.

Simply put, do we want more hotels on sites near the downtown core or do we want residential construction? If we want to incentivize residential development, we need to make some changes to public policy.

And if we want more affordable and workforce housing, we need to take more aggressive steps to ensure those outcomes.

I routinely hear complaints and concerns about gentrification and high housing costs in the downtown area, but I don’t see many people arguing for policies that will encourage affordable housing. If residents in the Thomas Square, Metropolitan and Victorian neighborhoods truly want to maintain socioeconomic diversity, we have to address affordable housing. And soon.

Anyway, back to The Bowery, which is described on its website (http://www.mynicheapartments.com/niches/the-bowery) as “an urban boutique apartment community located along the tree-lined Montgomery Street right in the heart of Historic Downtown Savannah.”

The complex, developed by My Niche Apartments out of Charlotte, includes 59 units and has gated off-street parking in the rear, onsite management, a fitness center, secure bike parking and a number of other amenities. The pet-friendly building even has a dog wash room.

One-bedroom units are priced between $1,400 and $1,650 per month. Two-bedroom units range from $2,100 to $2,375 per month. A few other new downtown apartment complexes have been built with college students in mind, but The Bowery seems to be aiming for a broader mix that includes young professionals and a variety of other folks who want a downtown flat.

If we can align public policy with some sort of coherent civic vision, we could see a variety of similar-sized apartment buildings and condo complexes built throughout the downtown area over the next decade. We could ensure that a certain number of units qualify as affordable housing, and some could even be offered to entry-level employees in public safety, education and the like.

Metro area continues to add jobs at rapid pace

According to data from the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 182,500 payroll jobs in November, an increase of 7,200 jobs (4.1 percent) from November 2015.

In other words, we continue to add jobs at a rate that far exceeds the rate of population growth. We can’t keep that pace up forever.

The leisure and hospitality sector added 1,700 jobs over the past year, but that number pales beside the 2,600 additional payroll positions in the broad category of professional and business services. Those jobs include a variety of positions in accounting, architecture, engineering, waste management and other fields.

According to these latest estimates, over the past year the Savannah metro area has also added 700 manufacturing jobs, 800 government jobs (mostly at the state level) and 600 jobs in education and health services.

Between November 2015 and November 2016, the number of payroll positions statewide increased by 2.3 percent, but that number was buoyed by the 2.6 percent increase in jobs in metro Atlanta. Savannah’s 4.1 percent growth was the best of any metro area in the state.

Georgia’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 5.3 percent in November, which was up slightly from October but still down from 5.5 percent a year ago. We’ll have to wait a few more days for the estimate for the Savannah metro area unemployment rate for November, but it will probably be around 5 percent.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. 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
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Proposed budget cuts raise larger questions

Mon, 12/12/2016 - 8:55pm

We’ve had many interesting public controversies in 2016, and we’re finishing the year with another one.

City of Savannah officials tried to fill some last-minute budget holes by cutting funding for various nonprofit groups that work broadly in areas of arts, culture and social services.

The proposal to cut funding to these groups by $400,000 is both more and less extreme than it sounds.

On the one hand, the proposed cuts amount to about one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s proposed $378 million budget for 2017. The cuts are equivalent to less than $3 per city resident.

So, viewed from one perspective, we’re talking about small change.

On the other hand, the funding cuts are to organizations with high public profiles and very tight budgets of their own. Many have already planned their spending for 2017, and these proposed cuts would leave many nonprofits with some serious problems.

If we’re going to cut funding for various social service, cultural and arts organizations, we need to give those nonprofits plenty of notice that they should expect less money in the future.

But should we even consider cuts to this very small piece of Savannah’s budget?

Over the last few decades, nonprofit groups across the U.S. have been under increasing pressure to prove that they provide an adequate return on investment for government support.

Perhaps that additional scrutiny has had a net positive effect on programming. For example, with government support on the line, some arts organizations have probably stepped up their outreach to at-risk youth or honed their efforts to attract tourists.

There’s a big downside to this type of scrutiny, however, if we reduce the work of nonprofit groups to a series of numbers and graphs. And I say that as a guy who loves numbers and graphs.

Sure, the organizations targeted for cuts in the city’s proposed budget are engaged in economic development, tourism promotion and education, but the impact of nonprofit organizations goes far beyond those numbers.

Arts, cultural and social services organizations make all of our lives richer in some way. If we followed the Bhutanese model of an index for “gross national happiness,” perhaps we’d get a better sense of the true value of these nonprofits.

By pledging a very modest level of public support to such groups, the city of Savannah is making a statement about our collective values regarding community, diversity, creativity and innovation. That public commitment is part of the local zeitgeist, the soul of Savannah.

All that said, I think there are many lingering questions here that deserve patient scrutiny. Why do some organizations make the cut while others don’t? How much should the city continue to support organizations that don’t seem to be able to attract individual or corporate supporters?

But those aren’t questions that we can adequately address in a week or even a month.

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: City kicks off initiative to redesign streetscapes for Broughton, Bay, River streets

Sat, 12/10/2016 - 9:37pm

City officials contracted earlier this year with the design firm EDSA to upgrade the streetscapes of Broughton, Bay and River streets.

Reporter Eric Curl covered last week’s initial meeting between EDSA consultants and Savannah community members, but I wanted to share some additional thoughts here. This is a big story, and not just because the initiative is costing taxpayers $8 million.

Over the next year or so of design work and then implementation, we will be making decisions that will have ramifications for a generation or two. We need to pay attention.

If you missed the meeting, you can jump right to http://savannahga.gov/streetscape for more info.

City officials are emphasizing the pedestrian experience in their language about this initiative. The overview of the project reads in part: “A key goal will be to realize each street’s full potential as a rich and varied pedestrian experience.”

City officials have not always used such clear language in discussing their goals for downtown.

Total attendance at last week’s meeting neared 100, with a large percentage being downtown residents. The room was dotted with professionals with considerable expertise in issues related to design and planning — architects, landscape architects, urban designers, historic preservationists and transportation experts. Mayor Eddie DeLoach and aldermen Brian Foster, Julian Miller and Bill Durrence also participated.

The meeting was led by Kona Gray, who attended SCAD years ago and has been with EDSA since 1997.

On one wall of the meeting room, the EDSA consultants posted photographs that were categorized into broad themes: transit, history, arts, events, activities, walkability and technology. Each participant was given three green dots to affix to the photos.

For example, a photo of live oaks attracted a couple dozen green dots. Perhaps it seems unnecessary to say this, but Savannahians care about trees. Trees are part of the city’s identity.

There has been some controversy about the chosen tree species on Broughton Street over the years, and I suspect there will be more controversy when EDSA make recommendations for trees.

For what it’s worth, I think all of Broughton Street would be impressive if lined with native palms, but perhaps different blocks should have slightly different characters.

Sure, we hope EDSA will come up with some cohesive plans for these three important corridors, but we don’t need block after block of one or two species of rather undistinguished deciduous trees.

The south side of Bay Street would benefit tremendously from some trees, and Gray from EDSA noted that we have root systems on the north side of Bay that are pushing into the curbs. Gray also noted during his presentation that River Street has few trees.

About 20 attendees placed green dots on a photo with a protected bike lane, and another 10 spotlighted a photo of a brick street with three paths divided equally among pedestrians, bicyclists and cars.

Two photos of sidewalk cafes attracted about 30 green dots, and a lovely sidewalk lined with trees and small businesses was also popular.

The photos of special events, however, attracted little attention in the exercise. More and more, I hear from downtown residents that they are tired of special events and the attendant road closures, congestion and other disruptions.

We need more day-to-day commerce and more ways for locals to access the Historic District as a matter of routine. Events don’t necessarily accomplish those goals.

Again and again, the meeting returned to themes of beauty, history and livability, but this was just the first workshop. There will be many more opportunities for citizens to weigh in, including an online survey now available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/SavStreetscape.

A correction about the “bathroom tile” buildings

In last Tuesday’s City Talk, I cited a 30-year old UPI article about Savannah officials being “aghast” at the tile exterior of the newly constructed federal buildings on Telfair Square.

The article quoted a “Mike Baquer” but it turns out that the attribution should have been to Mike Vaquer, who worked as an assistant to Mayor John Rousakis and is still active as a government affairs consultant with his own firm. When the UPI contacted City Hall for comment back in 1985, Rousakis was traveling in Greece, so the young Vaquer ended up as the de facto city spokesperson on a story that was distributed worldwide.

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

By: Bill DawersSection: BiS
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: What will replace two of Savannah's 'bathroom tile' buildings?

Mon, 12/05/2016 - 10:34pm
As Jan Skutch reported last week in this newspaper, the U.S. Congress has approved nearly $100 million for final repairs to the grand Tomochichi Federal Building and Courthouse on Wright Square and for construction of a new annex on the east side of Telfair Square.   Two of the three infamous office buildings that are part of the Juliette Gordon Low Federal Office Complex will be biting the dust.   Our “bathroom tile” buildings have been controversial for over 30 years. An article distributed by United Press International in Sept. 1985 was even headlined “Savannah aghast over tiles on new federal complex.” You won’t see “aghast” in many newspaper headlines.   “This coastal city, with hundreds of painstakingly preserved historic buildings,” begins the UPI’s 1985 coverage, “is embroiled in a fight with the federal government over the exterior of a new office building that an aide to the mayor says look like ‘an institutional bathroom wall.’”   “We’re convinced that the tile that was used was not the one approved,” Mayor John Rousakis told the UPI reporter. “We were not told about the change. It was completely irresponsible considering where the building was going.”   The article concludes with a suggestion from Rousakis aide Mike Baquer: “I guess we could plant kudzu.” No kudzu was ever planted, and now three decades later we have a chance to build something better. But will we get something better? We haven’t yet seen plans for the new 46,000-square foot annex, but I presume it will have a similar footprint to the courthouse. In other words, a short block of President Street is likely to disappear.   Sure, access to that short block has been restricted for a long time. Sure, it’s just one short block. But General Oglethorpe’s city plan has proved amazingly durable. Buildings come and go, but once a street is removed, it might be gone forever.   There are ways that the new structure’s design could reference the grid even if the street disappears, but that probably won’t satisfy the staunchest defenders of the Oglethorpe plan. As these plans move ahead, I also hope that the federal General Services Administration will revisit the restrictions on parking around the federal buildings.   Dozens of on-street spaces were removed after 9/11 because of fear of terrorism, and the elimination of so much parking in the heart of the city cost area businesses many millions of dollars in sales. Are those buildings really safer without a buffer of parked cars around them?   Despite the uncertainties ahead, I doubt too many Savannahians will mourn the loss of the two buildings slated for demolition.     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: Broughton Street gets good start on holiday season

Sat, 12/03/2016 - 10:46pm

On a recent Friday evening, a huge crowd gathered at the intersection of Broughton and Bull streets for the lighting of the huge Christmas tree that has been installed as part of the inaugural Holidays on Broughton.

For years, we had a public Christmas tree in Forsyth Park, but the location was problematic, especially since the tree wasn’t visible from most nearby streets and since many folks don’t make a habit of wandering Forsyth after dark. Also, the tree often seemed to lean one way or another, or have odd strings of lights that ran vertically, so the tradition never felt especially satisfying.

By contrast, the intersection of Bull and Broughton streets seems like a great location for a public Christmas tree, but I’ve still heard a fair bit of grumbling about the location.

For the record, the tree blocks Bull Street between Broughton Street and Congress Lane, but Broughton Street itself remains open to cars. Sure, the tree makes it harder to drive up and down the Bull Street axis, but Bull doesn’t really function as a good street for commuters anyway. Drayton and Whitaker streets can easily accommodate the through traffic.

Those who park in the garage next to SunTrust Bank might be mildly inconvenienced by the tree’s location, but the ramps in and out of the garage can still be accessed from the north.

I’ve wandered past the large Christmas tree several times since its installation, and I like the scale of it, although I’d personally appreciate something more colorful than the simple white lights.

Of course, I want to see Broughton lined with eye-catching neon signs like it once was, so my esthetic might be a little out of step with mainstream.

It’s worth noting, however, that the large temporary signs marking the closure of Bull Street are unsightly, especially during the day. In future years, we certainly need to find a more attractive but equally effective way to tell drivers that the block is closed to vehicular traffic.

Some of the grumbling I’ve heard about the tree really isn’t about the tree at all but about the role of developer Ben Carter in the creation of the new annual event and, more generally, in the transformation of Broughton Street.

As I’ve said here often enough, I see Carter’s efforts to attract national and international retailers as an acceleration of existing trends. In other words, we’d likely be seeing more and more large chains on Broughton Street even if Carter had never invested so heavily in Savannah.

Carter’s efforts and the investments by many other entrepreneurs are certainly paying off in terms of foot traffic.

There were lots of folks out wandering Broughton Street on a recent weekday evening about 6 p.m., and a number of restaurants and coffee shops on the strip were busy. The Christmas tree and the strings of lights over the street looked beautiful.

A significant percentage of retail stores were already closed, however. Yes, many business owners are stretched pretty thin and have few employees, but even some of the more prominent stores on Broughton were already closed and dark by 6 p.m.

Eventually, we’ll likely see Broughton Street lined with retailers who see the value of staying open into the early evening, at least during the holiday shopping season. The extended hours would especially appeal to local shoppers who have regular day jobs. Broughton Street won’t realize its potential as a holiday shopping destination until it’s more easily accessible to area residents.

Wright Square celebrates

I’ve been writing a lot lately about the need to support locally owned small businesses, many of which were especially impacted by Hurricane Matthew. Even if they didn’t sustain physical damage, many businesses lost a week’s worth of sales.

Fortunately, the holiday season presents many opportunities to return to stores we already love and to discover new shops, services and restaurants.

Last week, retailers in the Downtown Design District held their annual Holiday Walk, more than a dozen businesses teamed up for the Liberty Street Line Up and City Market hosted its annual Holiday Open House. On Dec. 9 from 5 to 9 p.m., merchants around Wright Square will hold their 15th annual Holiday Open House.

I’ve both covered and attended the Wright Square holiday event many times over the years. The participating businesses change from year to year, but the event has always showcased stores that bring something unique to the commercial landscape of the Historic District.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. 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
  • People gather on Broughton Street on a recent Friday evening for the Christmas tree lighting event. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News)
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Muse Arts Warehouse closing in Feb. 2017

Mon, 11/28/2016 - 9:30pm

An apartment building is planned for 703 Louisville Road, just west of Boundary Street.

The site, which lies in the midst of Savannah College of Art &Design residence halls, seems perfect for apartment geared toward college students.

The added density should be a boon to businesses in the western portion of downtown, and new investment in the area could accelerate efforts to build the new arena and the proposed Canal District. Those two projects, if done well, should dramatically improve connectivity between the History District and West Savannah.

These are positive developments, but they come at a steep price.

Muse Arts Warehouse, which has occupied the western portion of the lovely old railway freight terminal for the last seven years, will be shutting its doors at the end of February 2017.

Muse was founded by JinHi Soucy Rand, a dedicated member of Savannah’s arts community who recognized that the city needed a flexible, accessible, affordable space for performances.

Many of us knew that the closing of Muse was on the horizon, but Rand made it official a few days ago with a typically optimistic post on Facebook.

Rand noted that in its relatively short life, Muse has “facilitated well over 1,500 presentations and performances shared by local artists and local community organizations.”

“There are at least 10 different organizations with whom we have collaborated on a regular basis,” Rand added, “and I am particularly proud that we are at a time and place in Savannah where those organizations and others like them are able to find a number of venues in town to either utilize part time, or to claim as their permanent home.”

Rand plans to remain active within the Savannah arts community, and she noted that she is looking forward to focusing more on her husband Mark, her home and her health.

I love Rand’s optimism, but the loss of Muse Arts Warehouse will certainly present some challenges, especially for the theatre companies that have used the space routinely.

The plans for the new apartment building also raise some other thorny questions.

Are we doing enough to protect and preserve historic commercial buildings outside the core of the Historic District?

Shouldn’t we have a clearer plan for affordable housing in the downtown area before we see a flood of developments like this one?

There will be a farewell party for Muse Arts Warehouse on Feb. 11, 2017, but I’m sure that JinHi Soucy Rand – herself a muse to many artists – will continue her admirable work one way or another.

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: Atlantic is welcome addition to food scene

Sat, 11/26/2016 - 8:14pm
Atlantic opened recently at the northeast corner of Victory Drive and Drayton Street. The new restaurant is another exciting entry in Savannah’s increasingly ambitious food scene. Many readers of this column have probably already eaten at Atlantic. The restaurant held an extended soft opening – probably a great way to work out some kinks – and has been doing strong business since opening to the general public.   I made my first trip to Atlantic on the Monday of Thanksgiving week. I thought the restaurant might be a little slow on that night and hoped to find a seat at the bar. I thought wrong. Atlantic was bustling, and there was even one large party next to a heater on the gracious patio. I was lucky to be offered a two-top that had just become available, and I settled in to study the menu.   Of course I’d already studied the menu from home – you can find a copy on Atlantic’s Facebook page – so I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to try, but then owner and general manager Jason Restivo dropped by the table and made a few recommendations.   Many readers will remember Restivo from his time with Garibaldi and The Olde Pink House, and many of you will also know the work of chef Lauren Teague, who was at 22 Square inside the Andaz Savannah.   I’m genuinely excited about Atlantic’s current menu, and I’m even more excited to see how Teague’s dishes and choices evolve.   The menu is divided into four broad categories: tastes, breads, bowls and plates. Every item is priced under $20, and many are priced under $10.   The prices suggest that the Atlantic team is serious when they call the restaurant “a neighborhood eatery.”   I decided to indulge and ordered far more food than necessary. From the “tastes” I ordered both the kielbasa ($7) and the zucchini and green bean fritters ($6).   The kielbasa is made in-house, has a rich smoky flavor and isn’t greasy at all. With some small roasted potatoes and a horseradish cream sauce, the kielbasa certainly made a filling first course. The fritters are cooked with whole green beans that retained just the right amount of crispiness.   Next I tried the Brussels sprouts bowl ($13), a hearty combination of halved and roasted sprouts, braised pork belly, grapefruit and Service Brewing’s Teufel Hunden. That’s a lot of strong flavors, but I found the balance just about perfect.   If you’re looking for more traditional entrees, Atlantic has options like meat loaf ($14) and duck breast ($18).   I’m especially anxious to try a few of the sandwiches, including the muffaletta ($10), the house cured and smoked pastrami ($9) and the hot brown ($11), a variation on a traditional dish that I’ve eaten many times back in Kentucky.   Atlantic occupies a former dentistry office that was originally built as a gas station before World War II. It’s a lovely space, although the interior is a little loud right now. I also had two excellent drinks from Atlantic’s selection of specialty cocktails. The Century ($11) is a bourbon drink with a hint of fig, lemon and mint, and the Valley Forge ($12) is a combination of rye, Amara Luna, sherry and orange bitters. The latter was excellent with the Brussels sprouts bowl.   That’s a lot of food and drink, but my bill was only $53. You can eat and drink very well at Atlantic for less than half that much.   Restivo is an experienced sommelier, so it’s no surprise that Atlantic has a large and varied wine list.   Atlantic is open from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. As I write this, the restaurant’s website is still under construction, but you can find more info on Atlantic’s Facebook page or by calling 912-417-8887.   Atlantic is within walking distance of many midtown-area residents, but I don’t see many other people on foot after dark. So if you’re driving, you can find parking along 41st and 42nd streets between Drayton and Abercorn.   We’ve seen some impressive new restaurants over the past couple of years, and there is clear precedent for successful, reasonably priced restaurants within a few blocks of Atlantic. The Vault on Bull Street and Green Truck Pub on Habersham Street have developed loyal followings, and Atlantic will surely find many regular customers before the year is done.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. 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
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Local jobs report shows longer term gain

Mon, 11/21/2016 - 2:06pm

According to the latest estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah area labor market headed into the holiday season in healthy shape.

The Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 179,000 nonfarm payroll jobs in October. That was 4,600 more jobs than we had in October 2015. That’s an increase of 2.6 percent in the last 12 months, which is probably about twice the rate of population growth.

In October 2014, we had an estimated 167,900 payroll jobs. We had just 161,800 in October 2013.

The number of payroll positions has increased by more than 10 percent in the last three years. That’s an impressive number.

Employers in leisure and hospitality have been aggressively adding positions in the Savannah metro area, but it’s not the only sector that’s performing well.

For example, the broad category of professional and business services has been growing rapidly. The sector includes jobs in a variety of professional and technical services, management and support.

We had an estimated 21,200 payroll jobs in professional and business services in October, up 1,900 (9.8 percent) from October 2015.

The latest estimates indicate that the employment boom continues in Atlanta and a few other Georgia metro areas, but some metros have seen little or no job growth over the past year. Both Dalton and Hinesville had year-over-year declines in payroll jobs in October.

Of course, it’s no surprise when we see the employment base stagnate or even decline in some less populous areas of Georgia.

Many small counties and rural areas never really recovered from the 2007 to 2009 recession, and, as was noted in this paper earlier this year, more than half of Georgia’s counties lost population between 2010 and 2015. The problems in some parts of the state have been compounded by bank failures and the closure of rural hospitals.

Increasingly, we have two economies in the state – a few metro areas (especially Atlanta) with thriving job markets and less populated areas that are struggling against economic stagnation or even decline. We need sharper efforts to bridge this growing division.

It’s worth noting that the Savannah metro area saw a spike in initial claims for unemployment insurance in October, but I’d like to see more data before worrying about that. The Brunswick metro area also saw a sharp increase in claims, so it’s possible that the increase was partially due to Hurricane Matthew-related layoffs.

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: Small Business Saturday encourages 'shopping small'

Thu, 11/17/2016 - 8:57am

Thanksgiving week is upon us, and I hope that all the readers of this column have reasons to be thankful. It’s been a rough year for many of us, and the Thanksgiving holiday might provide the chance to put 2016 in perspective.

Of course, many Americans will only have half of Thanksgiving day for reflection. They’ll be bargain hunting by nightfall.

For better or for worse, Black Friday has become the single most important day for American retailers. According to analytics firm ShopperTrak, Americans spent $10.2 billion on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 2015.

National retailers attract a huge chunk of the sales on Black Friday and the rest of the Thanksgiving weekend, and a major online retailers have increasingly benefited from so-called Cyber Monday.

In 2010, the dominance of the national chains prompted American Express and various partners to create Small Business Saturday, an effort that encourages Americans to “shop small” and use the Saturday after Thanksgiving to support their local economies.

I hear routinely from readers who dislike the arrival of so many big chains on Broughton Street, but it seems clear that those major retailers have brought lots of new shoppers to downtown.

And those new shoppers aren’t just seeing the big national chains. Broughton Street is still dotted with locally owned small businesses – far more than I can list here.

Sure, the efforts of developer Ben Carter and the arrival of more national retailers have changed the dynamic on Broughton Street, but it turns out that many small businesses are still thriving on the traditional commercial strip.

And you’ll find many locally owned small businesses in key shopping areas throughout the downtown area, including but not limited to the intersection of Liberty and Bull streets, City Market, Wright Square, the Downtown Design District along Whitaker Street and the Starland neighborhood.

Sulfur Studios in Starland has even scheduled the Shop Small Saturday Market for Nov. 26 from noon to 6 p.m.

This column generally covers the downtown area, but there are obviously locally owned small businesses across the region. They aren’t hard to find.

It’s also worth noting that many so-called chains are actually franchises, which are locally owned and operated

As I noted in a column in October, many of our locally owned businesses took an especially hard hit from Hurricane Matthew. Even if the shops and restaurants avoided actual storm damage, their owners and employees had to deal with up to a week – or even more – in lost sales, wages and tips.

So the upcoming Christmas shopping season looms especially large this year for many of our neighbors.

If you value the small businesses and ambitious local entrepreneurs who contribute so much to the local character, you might want to think about shopping small.

Will recent decline in violent crime last?

The Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department publishes weekly crime reports on their website. It’s really easy to follow the data and see what the numbers are telling us about trends for this year compared to last year.

The crime report for the week ending Nov. 5 was notable. The department’s jurisdiction had zero homicides in that week, and there had not been any for the an entire 28-day period.

The spell was broken with a homicide a few days later, and we’re still headed for around 50 murders this year, which is about the same number we had in 2015.

Still, a full month with no murders is certainly good news. Let’s just hope that the decline is indicative of a trend.

Most of you probably already know this, but Savannah has had high per capita rates of violent crime for many years, and 2015 and 2016 have been among the bloodiest years in the city’s history.

While the numbers for 2016 will look similar to 2015, it’s worth pointing out that the number of homicides in the Central Precinct spiked this year. As of Nov. 5, there had been 23 murders in that precinct in 2015, up dramatically from the year-to-date total of 14 in 2015 and 12 in 2014.

Ten of those 23 homicides have been within a single beat in an area where petty street crimes like drug sales and prostitution flourish.

The SCMPD and city officials are still rolling out new initiatives for fighting crime, and it remains to be seen if they have the answers the city needs.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. 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
  • Bridget Lidy with the City of Savannah instructs 50 student volunteers from SCAD SERVE on how to decorate the lamp posts along Broughton Street. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • Kristen Anthony, a freshman at the Savannah College of Art and Design, wires a bow on the lamp post on Broughton Street. She and her classmates are decorating the light poles on Broughton Street between Montgomery and Lincoln streets. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • Broughton Street between Jefferson and Barnard streets. Savannah Morning News file photo
  • Broughton and Drayton streets. Savannah Morning News file photo
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Vote in Savannah metro area reveals deepening divide

Mon, 11/14/2016 - 9:48pm
When I’m looking at economic and demographic data in this column, I often consider the Savannah metropolitan statistical area, which includes Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties.    Many residents of Bryan and Effingham counties work in Chatham County, and many do a great deal of shopping in Chatham County, too. But Effingham and Bryan counties are nevertheless much smaller than Chatham County, and last week’s election results pointed to a deepening political divide in the metro area. Let’s look at some numbers.   In 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in Chatham County by 55.5 percent to 43.5 percent — about 13,000 votes. Last week, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Chatham County by over 16,000 votes, 55.8 percent to 41 percent.   Clinton may have bettered Obama’s 2012 numbers in Chatham, but it was a different story beyond Chatham’s borders.   Last Tuesday, voters in Effingham County gave 76.4 percent of the vote to Trump and only 20.8 percent to Clinton. Trump rolled up a margin of 13,000 votes — almost enough to offset Clinton’s win in much larger Chatham County. Romney won big in Effingham County too, with 75 percent of the vote to Obama’s 23.8 percent. But Romney’s margin was only 10,600, considerably less than Trump’s.   In Bryan County, Trump beat Clinton 69.8 percent to 26.6 percent, which is close to the 2012 vote, when Romney took 71.1 percent to Obama’s 27.6 percent. But in terms of the raw vote total, Romney won the county by 5,800 votes while Trump won Bryan by 6,400 votes.   We saw even starker patterns across the state. Clinton generally matched or improved upon Obama’s performance in Georgia’s larger counties, but Trump typically did better than Romney in less populated areas.   For example, in 2012 Obama lost both Cobb and Gwinnett counties in the Atlanta metro area, but Clinton took both of them last week even as turnout surged for Trump in smaller counties across the state. Yes, we have long had deep cultural and economic divides between Americans who live in cities and those who live in rural areas, but those divides have gotten deeper.   All three counties in the Savannah metro area might be booming in terms of both job growth and population growth, but a study earlier this year found that half the state’s counties lost population between 2010 and 2015.   Yes, there has always been a divide between the experiences of people who live in cities and in less populated areas, but the fissures have been growing. We might consider a variety of policies to address the yawning chasm, but first we have to understand it better.     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: A broader look at boom south of Forsyth Park

Sat, 11/12/2016 - 10:02pm
The Starland neighborhood has attracted considerable attention in recent years – from commercial investors, from prospective home buyers, from the local and even national press. I’ve written about the area numerous times in recent years, but ongoing developments dictate another broad look at the rapid changes.   The neighborhood’s catchy moniker comes from the old – and not yet renovated – Starland Dairy, but the name wasn’t commonly used until 15 years ago or so, after developers John Deaderick and Greg Jacobs conceived of the area as an arts district.   There is little consensus about Starland’s borders, but I define it relatively narrowly and only include blocks extremely close to the old dairy itself. Starland is within the larger Thomas Square Streetcar Historic District, which is bounded more or less by East Broad Street, Victory Drive, Montgomery Street and Anderson Lane.   It’s worth noting, however, that the city-recognized Metropolitan neighborhood takes up about half of the Thomas Square Historic District.   Newer investors seem to prefer a broader definition of Starland, but whatever you want to call it, the neighborhood south of Forsyth Park is booming.   Early in this century, some neglected parts of Thomas Square attracted interest from investors, but the real estate bust, the deep recession and the cautious recovery decimated many business plans. One was left to wonder how long the neighborhood would stagnate, especially since some corridors continue to be plagued by blatant street crime.   But those concerns seem almost quaint at this point, as investment surges along the Bull Street corridor.   There has been a flurry of activity near my house on 32nd Street, with two significant buildings on Bull Street being readied for new occupants.   We will soon see a new flagship store for Woof Gang Bakery in the large retail space once occupied by Gottlieb’s Bakery, on the west side of Bull between 32nd and 33rd streets.  The east side of Bull between 32nd and 33rd streets is also getting a makeover, and the Zoning Board of Appeals recently approved liquor by the drink for a small restaurant that will take one of the retail spaces. (For what it’s worth, I don’t know the restaurateur at all, but as a neighbor I wrote an email in support of the license since the plans are in keeping with the Thomas Square zoning.)   As this column has evolved over the years, I’ve devoted more space to broader trends and less space to profiles of individual businesses, but you’ll find Bull Street now dotted with newish businesses that I’ve never covered.   I haven’t had a chance to check out the new restaurant Atlantic yet, but it’s now open at the corner of Victory Drive and Drayton Street. More on that soon.    The new energy in the neighborhood was on display at Graveface Records & Curiosities’ recent block party celebrating five years in business. The event coincided with November’s First Friday Art March, which also brought visitors to the area for an especially busy, vibrant evening.   The self-effacing Ryan Graveface is obviously one of the busiest and savviest businesspeople in the Starland area, and I’ll confess to being in awe that he is so capably balancing the concerns of his own record store at 5 W. 40th St., the Graveface record label, his own bands and his sometimes-macabre interests.   The Graveface block party featured two stages, excellent bands, a variety of vendors and delicious food from the BowTie Barbecue Co. All that was set up along De Soto Avenue, but there was also plenty of activity at the record store, other nearby retailers and The Wormhole.   All that said, there are some big questions remaining for the Thomas Square neighborhood generally and the Bull Street corridor specifically.   How will the area be impacted when SCAD begins active use of the old school building on West 38th Street between Jefferson and Montgomery streets?   Will we ever make significant headway in reducing street level drug sales and prostitution at known hotspots?   What will happen to the old Sears building on Henry Street?   And what will be the fate of the former Notre Dame school at 1709 Bull St., the original home of B.C.?   And what about New Covenant Church at 2201 Bull St., which has previously been listed for sale?   Large properties like those will inevitably impact the neighborhood’s character, but the current momentum is likely to continue even if some questions remain unanswered for years.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. 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
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Marathon concert makes optimal use of Forsyth stage

Mon, 11/07/2016 - 10:31pm
Something amazing happened at the Savannah Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon’s concert in Forsyth Park headlined by Old Crow Medicine Show.   Fans got close to the stage.   I’ve written off and on in recent years about the poor design of our so-called “band shell.” There were simply too many competing interests during the planning and design phases, which resulted in a stage that was a few feet too low for and a horribly conceived fountain that functioned as a moat.   The city removed the original fountain many months ago and replaced it with a play fountain that has been well-used — at least when it’s turned on.   Even though the decorative fountain has been removed for a long time, productions in Forsyth Park have still generally used temporary security fences to keep the crowd on the edges of the sunken concrete area.   As a result, no fans could get really close to performers on stage, and the standing audience members at the fence blocked the view of anyone seated behind them.   For the marathon performances, fans who wanted to get close to the stage could simply walk down front to a standing area.   The placement of speakers prevented the fans up front from standing right against the entire width of the stage, but the layout dramatically enhanced the audience experience.   With the new arrangement, musicians can also feed much more off the energy of the crowd.   In a more perfect world, the play fountain would be on other side of the park, away from the stage.   As things stand now, any production on the stage – even one in the heat of summer – will require turning off that attraction for kids.   Still, maybe we finally have a precedent for using the space in ways that better meet the needs of both the performers and the audiences.   More generally, there was a predictably huge crowd in Forsyth for Saturday’s festivities, and the park proved once again how versatile it is. What a tremendous public space.   It’s worth noting, however, that multiple law enforcement vehicles were parked on tree roots in several spots. Sure, it was hot, and it’s natural to want to park in the shade, but driving or parking next to trees can damage the root systems.   Cars were also parked on tree roots most of the day at a nonprofit event a couple months ago.   I would hope that Hurricane Matthew’s visit last month has given us a new appreciation of our magnificent tree canopy.   There is simply no reason to risk that canopy carelessly.   Forsyth Park is a spectacular and resilient space, but there’s only so much abuse it can take.       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
  • A family listens to the Old Crow Medicine Show perform in Forsyth towards the end of the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Saturday afternoon. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News)
  • Ketch Secor plays the harmonica on the Forsyth Park stage as Old Crow Medicine Show performs Saturday during Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News)
Topic: City Talk