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CITY TALK: Following Pokemon Go’s evolution

Mon, 02/20/2017 - 4:54pm

After the introduction of Pokemon Go in summer 2016, I wrote a column about the ways in which the augmented reality game might impact local residents’ and visitors’ interactions with Savannah’s built environment.

What have we learned in the last six months?

Not surprisingly, many players who downloaded Pokemon Go at its launch have quit the game. The breakneck pace of the early days was unsustainable.

But, with the release last week of “Generation 2” of the virtual monsters, there has been a fresh surge of interest. In just six months of 2016, the game reportedly earned $950 million for its creator Niantic Labs, and it seems like the game can vault back to the top of the revenue charts whenever new content appears.

In recent months, Niantic has announced several significant sponsorship deals, including with Starbucks. Most Starbucks locations across the U.S. now serve as either stops or gyms in the game.

Pokemon Go generally works best in walkable places with prominent public spaces and notable buildings, so Savannah’s older neighborhoods are perfect. The most active local Facebook group for Pokemon Go has grown to almost 2,000 members, and there are hundreds of players in smaller team groups.

I got hooked on the game last summer, so I can attest to a decline in players as the game stagnated in late 2016. Still, there is little doubt that this game and future ones like it have the ability to lure residents into spending much more time in the public realm – sitting in squares, wandering along the riverfront, exploring different neighborhoods.

I see tourists playing Pokemon Go nearly every time I walk through Forsyth Park or the Landmark Historic District. Some are catching creatures as they walk, and many pause to battle at the virtual gyms, especially along the Bull Street corridor or River Street.

In the local Facebook group, there are periodic questions from prospective tourists about the state of the game in Savannah. While in New Orleans for Christmas, I looked for information about the game and subsequently spent part of an afternoon exploring City Park.

In November, a special Pokemon Go event lured tourists from around the world to the area of Japan that had been ravaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Given the success of Pokemon Go, we will likely see many games and educational apps that influence the choices of tourists and subtly change the landscape of the city, but I don’t have a good guess about the ultimate magnitude of the changes.

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: Another day, another near miss on Drayton Street

Sat, 02/18/2017 - 7:52pm

One morning last week, Kevin Rose was headed downtown as usual to his office at Lominack Kolman Smith Architects.

Rose was driving in the left lane on Drayton Street when the car ahead of him in the right lane slowed just before the East Gwinnett Street intersection.

Many northbound cars turn onto Gwinnett Street, and that’s what Rose thought was happening.

And then the car came to a complete stop, which made Rose assume that a pedestrian was about to cross the street. He wouldn’t have hit the as yet unseen walker, but he feared that the car behind him would. Rose slammed on his brakes.

“I’ve seen this play out a million times where one car stops and the car in the other lane doesn’t,” Rose said of the incident. “Most pedestrians having seen the first car stop are lulled into a false sense of security.”

The pedestrian turned out to be an older woman using a walker. Rose’s car was rear-ended, but thankfully no one was injured.

Similar scenes happen routinely on Drayton and Whitaker streets.

“Without signalling devices indicating that pedestrians are present,” Rose said, “it is almost impossible to tell from lane two if someone is turning or stopping until it is too late.”

Let me share another story from that same stretch of Drayton Street.

A few months ago, I was about to walk across Drayton at Hall Street, just a block north of last week’s near-catastrophe.

About the same time, a mother and three children were also poised to cross.

There were cars several blocks south of us, and if I had been alone, I would have started crossing the street without thinking. I would have had plenty of time.

But sometimes being a pedestrian in this town comes with some extra responsibility. I knew that I could make it across easily, but I wasn’t so sure about the family next to me.

I waited on the curb, while the teen-age son from the family alongside me decided to go ahead. He correctly judged that the coast was clear but he incorrectly assumed that the situation was safe.

I stopped the two other children and mother from crossing.

The oncoming cars whizzed by us without a pause, and the teen, now standing on the sidewalk across the street, looked perplexed.

After the rest of us caught up to him, the teen remarked that he thought that drivers always stopped for pedestrians. I laughed that suggestion off without belaboring the rules of the road in Savannah.

None of this is a mystery. We know that average speeds on Drayton Street are way too high, and we know that pedestrians are routinely imperiled. I even wrote a recent column about witnessing two auto accidents in less than 24 hours on that same stretch of Drayton Street.

In 2016, downtown resident Matthew Hallett wrote a letter to the editor of this newspaper that touched on the exact situation that faced Kevin Rose last week.

“I have to admit that I often do not stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk near the Mansion on Forsyth Park,” Hallett wrote, “because I fear I will get rear-ended or worse they will get flattened when someone zips around to pass me.”

So we have a known trouble spot where a fatal accident seems almost inevitable, but we have a local culture that tends to blame pedestrians even when they clearly have established the right-of-way. And we have a city bureaucracy that ignores these dangers and is even proposing policies that will increase vehicle speeds on key corridors.

The month-long experimental removal of parking spaces on Bay Street predictably resulted in higher speeds, despite the fact that residents have been alarmed by fast traffic on Bay for many years. At an upcoming workshop about the Bay Street streetscape, the design firm EDSA is likely to make recommendations that will result in even higher speeds.

Some readers will respond to this column by saying that we simply need more enforcement. If drivers are going too fast, then we need more police officers writing more tickets, right?

Wrong. All the problems discussed in this column are the direct result of poor street design. Roads like Drayton and Whitaker are essentially expressways. The unduly wide lanes with no on-street parking encourage dangerously high speeds. For long stretches, there are no signalized crossings for pedestrians.

It’s long past time for city officials to address known dangers like these.

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: Poverty data shows need for bold action

Mon, 02/13/2017 - 4:34pm

Eric Curl’s article on Sunday about the persistence of high poverty rates in Savannah caught my attention, and I hope it caught your attention, too.

As Eric noted, Savannah had a 26.5 percent poverty rate in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. It’s been over a year since the last time City Talk looked closely at the numbers, so this seems like a good time to consider some of the data beyond the headline rate.

The 26.5 percent poverty rate in the city of Savannah is for individuals, and the rate varies dramatically by age.

For example, the poverty rate among Savannahians 65 and over is only 11.3 percent.

Yes, that still means that 1 in 10 seniors is living in poverty, but that’s dramatically lower than other age groups.

The rate is 24.3 percent for Savannahians between the ages of 18 and 64, although that number would be slightly lower if we removed some college students who technically fall below the poverty line.

For Savannahians under 18, the poverty rate is a staggering 41 percent, according to the American Community Survey estimates.

In 2015, 21.7 percent of Savannah households had less than $15,000 in income.

Despite these high numbers, only 17 percent of households received food stamp or SNAP benefits in the past year, and only 1.4 percent of households received cash public assistance.

I should also note that Savannah has a very high rate of uninsured residents.

Approximately 9 percent of Americans lack health insurance, but the rate is 20.6 percent in Savannah. Those estimates include children, the vast majority of whom have insurance of some kind.

Of the 57,500 employed persons in Savannah, 26.6 percent do not have health insurance.

The number of uninsured would certainly be lower if Georgia had accepted the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. A few months ago, it looked possible that Georgia’s Republican leaders might pursue some version of Medicaid expansion, but Donald Trump’s election has likely delayed any such discussions.

I admire the work of the various nonprofits and agencies discussed in Eric’s Sunday coverage, but it seems that we need much bolder initiatives if we want to make a dent in the current poverty rate.

Poverty became an important issue in the 2015 citywide elections, but city manager Rob Hernandez has only been on the job since October 2016. It will be interesting to see if city leaders launch additional proposals in the coming months.

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: Transportation tax vote could bring complicated decision

Sat, 02/11/2017 - 1:00pm

State lawmakers are considering major pieces of legislation that could have significant impacts for Savannah.

As regular readers of this newspaper know, legislators might vote to allow some sort of casino gambling in the state. In recent years, Savannah has been discussed as a possible casino location, so we need to follow the various proposals closely.

If a casino bill appears headed for Gov. Deal’s desk, I’ll devote one or more columns to the issue.

State lawmakers are also revisiting the issue of transportation funding. Under a freshly reinforced T-SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax for transportation), individual counties would be able to secure long-term funding for infrastructure projects.

A lot of things need to fall into place between here and there, but Chatham County voters could soon face another T-SPLOST vote.

In 2012, voters along the Georgia coast turned down a regional 1 percent T-SPLOST, which would have by law mandated the eventual completion of a specific, heavily vetted list of projects. The tax was supported in some areas, but Chatham voters rejected it by 57 to 43 percent.

Given the defeat of the previous referendum on a transportation sales tax, would a new T-SPLOST have any chance of passage?

The new proposed tax might have several things working in its favor.

For starters, the 2012 vote was held at a time when the local economy was still struggling to escape a deep recession. The so-called “Great Recession” officially ended in the summer of 2009, but many sectors and thousands of households faced years of difficult recovery.

Also, while it made sense for a new transportation sales tax to be applied regionally rather than just in individual counties, some voters were clearly uncomfortable with the bureaucratic reach of the 2012 referendum.

And many voters doubted that key projects would in fact be completed, despite language in the referendum that required completion as a matter of law.

On top of all that, many voters objected to specific items on the project list that they found counterproductive, unnecessary or too costly. Some voters dismissed the very idea of the removal of the I-16 ramp over Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, even though others of us see that as a project that will spur private investment and actually improve mobility in the Historic District.

After the failure of the regional T-SPLOST referenda in most areas of the state, Georgia leaders in 2015 raised gas taxes and hotel taxes to fund transportation, but it seemed clear at the time that the additional funds would not meet the growing needs throughout the state.

Will local voters view T-SPLOST differently than they did in 2012? Has anything happened in the past five years that would change the outcome at the polls?

We’ve heard intensified calls over the past few years for major improvements to U.S. Highway 80 on the way to Tybee. During the debate five years ago, I argued in this column that an expensive project like that, no matter how much it were needed for safety, might get delayed indefinitely if voters aren’t willing to foot the bill.

I’d make the same argument today, but will voters see the issue the same way?

It’s also worth noting that the local economy is stronger in 2017 than in 2012, which might make some voters more likely to vote yes on a sales tax increase.

But will there be a specific project list, so voters know exactly what will be done with their money?

Will we be able to use the tax revenue for transit operations and not just transit infrastructure?

Will there be funding for bicycling infrastructure, which costs extremely little compared to other types of transportation infrastructure?

If the new T-SPLOST is less than 1 percent, will officials find the right balance between revenue and proposed projects? The omission of too many desired projects could doom the future referendum, even if some voters are more likely to vote for, say, a 0.5 percent sales tax than a 1 percent sales tax.

I was a lonely public voice supporting the 2012 T-SPLOST, but that’s no guarantee I will back a future referendum. There are just too many unanswered questions at this point.

On the other hand, we have critical needs, like improvements to the road to Tybee. We might once again have to choose between a problematic funding mechanism and no funding mechanism at 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: Savannah’s zoning crisis is here. Now.

Mon, 02/06/2017 - 4:22pm

The wonderful and dark 2016 film “Christine,” which was filmed in Savannah, tells the story of Christine Chubbuck, a troubled journalist who worked in Florida in the 1970s.

Chubbuck thinks that she needs splashy stories to advance in the TV news business, and she also wants to tell serious stories about issues that matter to the community. That combination of ambition and seriousness is obvious at the outset of the film when she is covering a “zoning crisis.”

Can a community have a “zoning crisis”? Yes, as it turns out, and Savannah has one right now.

I first started writing seriously about zoning about 15 years ago, when we were working on a difficult but ultimately successful rezoning of my Thomas Square neighborhood.

By that same time, activists in tightknit Hudson Hill were calling on city officials to rezone their neighborhood, but nothing happened. Over a decade ago, the capable planners at the Metropolitan Planning Commission began working on a much-needed overhaul of the zoning code – another subject covered exhaustively in this column – but that process was delayed for years by political inaction.

Enter The Stage on Bay, a 1,000-capacity venue that has the potential to have profoundly positive impacts on the Savannah music scene.

According to the venue’s website, there are about 60 on-site parking spaces. For bigger shows, attendees can also park in two nearby lots with a total of 200 spaces. Parking will cost $10 to $20 for headline acts.

I’ve seen a lot of social media posts bashing the neighborhood for objecting to the new venue, but there isn’t a neighborhood in town that would embrace a 1,000-capacity venue that has only 260 parking spaces and will be open late every weekend.

It turns out, however, that The Stage on Bay met the existing zoning requirements, so neighborhood residents had no formal way to make their objections known until the venue applied for their liquor license.

And that’s another problematic element of our zoning process. Entrepreneurs can work with city staff and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a location where alcohol is clearly allowed only to be thwarted when they are poised to open?

By contrast, in my neighborhood with a functional zoning process, an aspiring restaurateur received approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals for an alcohol license before beginning construction. With the support of neighbors and the ZBA already on record, city approval will be a formality.

If alcohol is a key part of the business model, we have to let businesspeople know far in advance if their license applications will be approved.

There are no winners here, except the attorneys who will profit from the litigation.

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: Expect fewer locals at St. Patrick’s day festival after wristband fee increase

Sat, 02/04/2017 - 9:22pm

In many respects, St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah shows the city at its best.

In the coming weeks, we’ll see a host of traditional events — formal ceremonies, family gatherings, celebrations of heritage. Some events will be solemn and religious, some will be raucous and secular, and many will fall somewhere in between.

But St. Patrick’s Day brings controversy too, especially regarding the defined festival period in the days before and after the holiday itself.

Many readers of this column weren’t out partying in Savannah in the 1990s. Many of you were too young to drink back then, and many of you didn’t even live here.

So if you fall into one of those categories, you’ll have to take my word that the crowds were much bigger and the partying much crazier back in the 1990s.

Actually, you don’t have to take my word for it.

Consider a little of the history. In 1999, largely because of concerns about crowd management, city officials controlled access to River Street and required the purchase of $5 wristbands for anyone who wanted to drink alcohol outside.

For the record, I began writing this column in 2000 and have been consistently critical of bureaucratic efforts to restrict access to public spaces and impose fees for activities that are legal and free throughout the rest of the year. Still, when I remember the crowds on River Street back in the 1990s, I can understand why officials wanted to have better control.

According to a 2013 article by Lesley Conn in this newspaper, there were 84,800 wristband sales during the 2001 St. Patrick’s Day festival period. The festival period was just two days that year — Friday and Saturday. So that number doesn’t include the large Thursday night crowds, and it doesn’t include the revelers in the City Market area or anywhere else downtown.

Officials eventually nixed the River Street wristbands for a variety of reasons, but for the past few years a coalition of business groups and public officials have mandated the purchase of wristbands by anyone who wants to consume alcohol in a much larger festival zone.

According to an article last week by Eric Curl, wristband sales were between 70,000 and 80,000 in each of the last three years. Two of those years were four-day festivals, and one was a three-day festival.

So how did we go from 84,000 wristband sales in two days on River Street to less than 80,000 sales in three or four days across a dramatically larger area?

It seems like that there are a variety of factors that contributed to the decline in festival attendance.

Almost certainly, the decline was in part due to the restrictions imposed beginning with the River Street wristbands and gates in 1999.

Before I continue, it’s worth noting that some local folks are glad to see smaller crowds and fewer public safety concerns during the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. If we want to shrink the festival even more, we can create additional bureaucratic barriers, like this year’s doubling of the wristband price from $5 per day to $10 per day.

Who’s willing to pay $10 per day to do something that’s free every other day of the year? Many visitors, especially those for whom drinking in public is a novelty, won’t think twice about the $10 fee. Also, those who are desperate to get blindingly drunk probably won’t balk at the higher price.

But the increased wristband cost is another barrier for average local residents — the people who want to enjoy a little of the party, who want to have a couple drinks, who want to get in and out of town safely.

Yes, I have heard the endless argument that there’s no other way to pay for cleanup, police, entertainment and the like. That’s a weak argument. Other cities have far larger and more costly public festivals that don’t require individual attendees to buy wristbands at streetcorner stands.

And it’s worth adding that the wristband sales aren’t simply covering costs, but also generating additional revenue for other events throughout the year.

The proposed increase to $10 per day per wristband fits into a broader pattern.

As the downtown economy and business landscape have increasingly catered to tourists, many area residents don’t feel like they are welcome or even wanted in the downtown area.

The increased wristband fee comes on top other policy proposals — removal of on-street parking, price increases for on-street parking, a proposed fee added to sales-tax eligible transactions — that would further discourage local residents from coming downtown.

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
  • Crowd dances to the live music on Rousakis Plaza on River Street. 1999 / bob morris photo.
  • Photo Adam Traum/The Savannah News Press An east view of River Street in Savannah Saturday. Thousands gathered to take part in one on the holiday’s largest parties. 1999
  • Brian LaPeter/Savannah Morning News Michael Anderson’s job early Thursday morning was sanitizing the sidewalks on River Street after a crew used blowers to push the debris into the street. City workers began the post St. Patrick’s Day celebration cleanup before 4 a.m. 1999
  • Sign on one of the Waterfront Association’s beer sales booths on River St. Bob Morris photo. 1999
  • Brian LaPeter/Savannah Morning News Stacey Weltzin, of Oregon, watches as a friend gets her wristband allowing alcohol consumption.1999
  • Brian LaPeter/Savannah Morning News Gates went up on River Street Friday afternoon, though wristbands for alcohol consumption were not immediately available. 1999
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: New charter school, Savannah Philharmonic enliven Bull Street

Mon, 01/30/2017 - 6:49pm
The Bull Street corridor south of Forsyth Park is usually quiet on Sunday afternoons.   But not last Sunday.   The Savannah Philharmonic hosted “Philharmonic in the Streetz” at Tricks Barbecue at the corner of Bull and 42nd streets. There was such a good crowd that I forgot to do my usual event headcount.   Some of the Philharmonic’s brass musicians performed, as did Laiken Love and The Fellowship of Love and an ensemble led by Ricardo Ochoa. Magic Marc Dunston emceed and did some nifty tricks, and Leopold’s Ice Cream showed up with free treats.   And, of course, there was the wonderful BBQ from Tricks. The $10 rib dinner is enough food for two, but there was no way I was sharing.   There was also some uncharacteristic Sunday afternoon activity in the gym of the historic school building at the corner of Bull and 34th streets.   The event was an open house for the Susie King Taylor Community School, a K-8 charter school planning to open in fall 2017.   The new school is expecting final state approval in February and is negotiating to lease the site of the open house – the historic school next to Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The building was home to the original Benedictine College, which left the neighborhood more than 50 years ago, and was most recently occupied by Notre Dame Academy, which closed in 2015.   Susie King Taylor is an iconic figure in the history of the Georgia coast. At the age of 13, before the Civil War was even over, she was teaching newly freed black students in a school on St. Simons Island, which was under the control of Union forces.   In 2016, it looked likely that the building would be sold, possibly for a condominium development, but that prospect didn’t sit well with members of Sacred Heart Catholic Church who want the site to remain active as a school.   I’ve written approximately one million columns calling for greater residential density in the downtown area, and I live just a couple blocks away from the planned site for the Susie King Taylor Community School. Condos would have been preferable to many other uses, but if the building had been converted to residential, it would probably never be a school again.   Sunday’s open house featured general information about the new school plus a chance for visitors to interact with some of the school’s community partners, including Oatland Island Wildlife Center, storyteller J’miah Nabawi, Farm to School, Historic Savannah Foundation, Davenport House and blacksmith Gilbert Walker.   Susie King Taylor Community School is now accepting applications for grades K through 4. For more information, check out the website at https://www.sktcs.org.       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: Existing processes pit developers, residents against each other

Sat, 01/28/2017 - 9:40pm

In recent months, we’ve seen several high-profile examples of residents trying to limit commercial development in their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood residents have opposed attempts by hoteliers to reduce restrictions for specific projects on Liberty and Drayton streets. Parkside residents have been increasingly vocal about proposed developments along East Victory Drive.

In recent weeks, residents of Hudson Hill and other West Savannah neighborhoods have spoken out against a 1,000-capacity music venue, The Stage on Bay, which is poised to open next week.

The details are obviously different in all these cases, and I am not equating them.

But these three examples reflect the ongoing tension between private property rights, zoning restrictions and residential quality of life.

I wish I had a nickel — or maybe $10? – for every time I’ve heard someone say that owners should be able to do whatever they want with their privately owned property, but that argument breaks down fast when neighbors are suddenly confronted with new uses that clearly reduce their quality of life.

Savannah seems to have more than its fair share of public debates that involve this fundamental tension between commercial developers and neighborhood residents.

I think the neighbors have some valid concerns in all three of the issues that I cited at the beginning of this column, but we also have a history of indulging spurious complaints from residents who don’t understand the issues at hand or have radically different definitions of “quality of life” than their neighbors do.

A number of readers objected to a recent column in which I suggested that the planned West Elm Hotel on Drayton Street might be a better building if it were allowed a fifth floor. The disagreements, the bureaucratic delays and the lawsuit threats could likely have been avoided if we simply had a clearer zoning code.

In his excellent talk a few months back in the Savannah Urbanism Series, longtime Charleston mayor Joe Riley emphasized that cities can “curate” the experiences of their visitors. Regarding future hotel construction, we can update our ordinances so that neighborhoods are more protected and developers have a clearer idea what to expect.

Perhaps we should get rid of the whole policy of allowing so-called bonus floors for hotels that incorporate street-level retail and restaurant uses. We could simply set a fixed height and also require engagement at the street level.

We could also limit the size of future hotels in certain parts of the city. Maybe hotels south of Liberty Street should have a strict limit set on the number of rooms or on the building footprint.

Yes, such restrictions would impact property rights and potentially reduce commercial investment, but more restrictive policies could be paired with less restrictive policies for other types of projects.

In particular, we could offer those bonus floors for residential development, and we could reduce other restrictions so that new construction would still be profitable.

Of course, some readers might not want any of those things. Some of you might oppose any development that might result in more traffic or noise – that might have any negative impacts at all.

Urban theorist Jane Jacobs used the word “squelchers” to describe the people and the bureaucratic systems that stifle all innovation. If cities are going to thrive, we have to accept and maybe even embrace some of the changes.

At some point, we are going to see additional commercial development in areas that right now are underutilized, including portions of Victory Drive, West Bay Street and Montgomery Street. It looks like that seemingly inevitable surge in investment is coming sooner rather than later.

While the development pressures are mounting, our local bureaucracies have been spinning their wheels with arcane regulations that don’t align with current development trends and also don’t align with neighborhood needs.

In the coming months, City Manager Rob Hernandez will likely propose some new guidelines for hotel development. The long-planned overhaul of the zoning codes for Savannah and Chatham County might finally be moving ahead.

Those changes to public policy seem necessary but by no means sufficient to address the issues ahead.

I devoted a recent column to the need for more focus on the needs of individual neighborhoods. Those needs won’t be addressed simply by changing the zoning code or creating an overlay map for hotel development.

Just as we need more predictable processes from the top down, we need more avenues for grassroots neighborhood efforts to be manifested in policy.

If we don’t find better ways to handle these current tensions between commercial investors and neighborhood residents, we are going to see an endless series of conflicts.

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: Recent streetscape meeting presents problematic options

Mon, 01/23/2017 - 10:22pm
Last week, more than 100 engaged citizens attended the second in a series of meetings to discuss streetscape upgrades for Broughton, Bay and River streets.   The design firm EDSA is spearheading the Savannah Downtown Streetscape Improvement Initiative, which is being funded by $8 million in city bonds.   I was fairly enthusiastic about the direction of the process after the first meeting in late 2016, but last week’s session at the Coastal Georgia Center presented a number of problems.   Of course, nothing has been finalized, and I’d encourage anyone interested in the vitality of downtown to attend the upcoming meetings that will look more closely at each of the three corridors. Those meetings are scheduled for Feb. 20-22.   Stakeholders should also take a look at last week’s presentation at savannahga.gov/streetscape and then respond to the online survey.   EDSA’s Kona Gray led the presentation of two thematic approaches — “historic” and “coastal.”   The design choices for Broughton Street struck me as excellent. We will eventually have better tree cover and more cohesive design elements, and EDSA is recommending either intersection nodes or mid-block pedestrian gathering areas.   I prefer the design includes curb extensions and landscaping at intersections for a variety of reasons, but that design wouldn’t preclude the creation of mid-block pedestrian gathering areas.   EDSA’s preliminary concepts for Bay and River streets are much more problematic than their options for Broughton Street.   Stakeholders are clearly concerned about high vehicular speeds on Bay Street, but neither of the design options would reduce speeds – and one option would likely increase speeds.   Both options would protect existing trees and allow for new ones, but both would result in considerable loss of on-street parking that is critical for downtown retail stores and restaurants.   No bike lanes are being recommended for Bay or Broughton streets.   Curiously, the suggested options for River Street do include a bike lane, but I don’t see how that will work.   As someone who rides my bike routinely, I am unconvinced a useful bike lane can be added to River Street. There are simply too many pedestrians at busy times, and too many of them will end up walking in and across the bike lane.   Also, the proposed bike lane will have to negotiate the de facto barriers created by the Hyatt and by the cramped public spaces in the area of Joe’s Crab Shack.   My main concern as a cyclist is simply getting to River Street, not riding along River Street.   Under both design options, some of the historic cobblestones on the street itself would be covered.   The streetscape initiative is moving quickly, and funding has been identified. So interested parties need to get involved and be prepared for the February meetings.   ^   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: Savannah’s economy today vs. 2008

Sat, 01/21/2017 - 8:25pm

How has the Savannah economy changed during the Obama presidency?

Before I give some wonky answers to that question, I should note that U.S. presidents are frequently given too much credit and too much blame for economic shifts that happen on their watch.

Presidents sometimes inherit economies with clear positive momentum, so they might end up in the luxurious position of overseeing growth that they did little or nothing to effect.

Sometimes, as in Obama’s case, presidents can come into office when the economy is in rough shape. When Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, the U.S. economy was still reeling in the wake of the housing bust and the financial crisis.

For what it’s worth, I think the Obama administration did a lot of things right in trying to jumpstart the economy, but there were miscalculations, too.

At the end of the day, however, dramatically different policies might have had only limited impacts on the long slog back to a new normal after the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

Even if presidents have only limited influence over the economy, the turnovers between administrations have become important historical benchmarks.

So let’s look at some numbers from December 2016 and from December 2008.

According to data from the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 157,000 nonfarm payroll jobs in December 2008.

In December 2016, we had 182,500 jobs – an increase of 16.2 percent in eight years.

That works out to annual job growth of 1.8 percent, which is markedly faster than the rate of population growth.

Of course, that yearly average includes some weak years for employment. The nation’s economy exited the recession in summer of 2009, but recoveries from financial crises are notoriously slow. Predictably, the economy has gained steam over the last few years, and we saw a strong 3.9 percent job growth between December 2015 and December 2016, according to data released last week.

Despite the strong growth in recent years, the Savannah economy looks markedly different today than it did when Obama’s first term began.

In December 2008, we had 8,300 payroll jobs in the sector that includes construction employment, but that sector had only 6,100 jobs in December 2016.

Some of that decline might be due to changes in the construction industry, but the numbers also reflect the extremity of real estate speculation before the housing collapse. The Savannah area is still dotted with uncompleted residential developments that were started before the bust.

Employment in financial activities has also stagnated over the last eight years, but that’s no surprise given the irrational exuberance before the financial crisis.

Construction employment might still be lagging, but manufacturing employment in the Savannah metro area has increased from 14,900 jobs in December 2008 to 18,200 last month. Of course, we’ve also seen a jump in jobs in leisure and hospitality — from 19,900 in December 2008 to 27,300 in December 2016. That is certainly rapid growth, but several other sectors have also posted strong gains. Employment in the broad category of education and health services increased from 22,000 in December 2008 to 26,300 in December 2016.

Employment in professional and business services increased from 17,000 in December 2008 to 22,700 in 2016. The Savannah metro area has also seen significant growth in employment in retail trade and in transportation, warehousing and utilities. Government employment was 24,100 in December 2008. That increased to 25,500 in December 2016. Given the robust population growth, that’s a remarkable statistic.

In theory, we should see the number of teachers, sanitation workers, public safety officers and other government jobs increase at the same rate as population growth.

In prior recessions, government employment wasn’t significantly impacted, and public sector job growth typically continued throughout economic recoveries.

As I said in Tuesday’s column, the Savannah economy has been a winner during the current economic expansion, but you don’t have to go far to find Georgia counties that are still struggling with employment stagnation and population loss.

Given the generally robust metro area economy, one wonders if we need a large stimulus package like the one proposed by President Trump, but many areas of Georgia could potentially benefit from aggressive public sector spending.

I don’t have space to discuss other changes to the local economy during the Obama presidency, so I might loop back around to this in a future column.

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: 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
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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.

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