BiS: - Business news for the creative coast.

City Talk

Subscribe to City Talk feed
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday - Email me. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.
Updated: 1 hour 53 min ago

CITY TALK: Be alert as legislators eye revenue for transportation

Mon, 12/15/2014 - 8:41pm

Georgia has underfunded transportation infrastructure for years, and there now seems to be broad agreement, including among the Republican officials who lead the state, that the state needs more revenue, perhaps more than $1 billion per year.

According to veteran political reporter Walter C. Jones from the Morris News Service, ideas on the table include “increasing the gas tax or sales tax, toll roads and billing alternative-fuel vehicles per mile driven.”

Back in 2012, the Savannah area joined most of the state in soundly rejecting the regional TSPLOST. If it had passed, we would have seen an increase of 1 percent in sales taxes in the coastal region, and that money — by law — would have been used for a list of transportation projects that were determined in a transparent political process.

I didn’t like some of the projects on the final TSPLOST list. I didn’t think there was enough money for transit or for alternative transportation generally. I thought the final list would encourage suburban sprawl to a degree.

I also feared that some of those projects would induce so much demand that within a generation we’d be dealing with the very same trouble spots that we have today.

But, from my perspective, there was still a lot to like in that TSPLOST list, including relief for congestion caused by trains on both the east and west sides of Savannah, safer bridges on the road to Tybee and the removal of the one-way Interstate 16 exit ramp so that we could transfer several acres of land back into private hands.

Yes, sales taxes are regressive. An increase in the sales tax would have disproportionately impacted people with less income.

Despite the drawbacks, I supported the regional TSPLOST. It seemed like the best transportation funding method that we could get in the current political climate.

I also assumed that, if we voted against TSPLOST, we’d somehow pay an even heftier price down the road, either in decaying infrastructure or through a funding scheme that would give us even less local control.

Consider that an increase in the gasoline tax would likely be even more regressive than an increase in sales tax. Newly released estimates show that in recent years the poorest quintile of American households has been spending about 12 percent of after-tax income on gas. The wealthiest quintile of households spends only about 3 percent of after-tax income on gas.

Also, if Georgia legislators find new revenue for transportation in 2015, it seems likely that the Atlanta metro area will be prioritized.

So we could end up paying more for transportation without reaping significant benefits.

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

By: Bill DawersByline2: Savannah Morning NewsSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Entrepreneurs pushed boundaries in Savannah in 2014

Sun, 12/14/2014 - 12:06am

As 2014 draws to a close and we reflect on the year, it’s worth noting that entrepreneurs are taking bigger risks than at any time since the recession.

Some of those entrepreneurs are bringing new business models to the Savannah market or are pushing existing boundaries in meaningful ways.

Consider developer Ben Carter’s efforts on Broughton Street, which were covered extensively by this newspaper in 2014.

Carter certainly isn’t the first businessperson to buy multiple properties or to try to lure higher-end national retailers to Broughton, and his ambitions pale beside those of the Savannah River Landing developers in the years before the recession.

But Carter’s attempts to remake the Broughton landscape don’t have any clear precedent. It’s a big gamble.

Carter isn’t the only one testing limits.

Savannah as a “beer town”

Moon River Brewing Company unveiled a new beer garden in spring 2013, Southbound Brewing Company opened on Lathrop Avenue in fall 2013 and Service Brewing opened on Indian Street in fall 2014.

Coastal Empire Beer Co. on Ross Road is poised for the grand opening of its tasting room.

Savannah would seem to have many characteristics that would encourage other entrepreneurs to open breweries and brew pubs, but we need a more supportive local ordinance and desperately need an overhaul of state law.

According to Citizens for GA Beer Jobs website, Georgia is “one of only 5 states left where a brewery cannot sell beer to directly to consumers” and “ranks 47th out of 50 states in terms of breweries per capita.”

If Georgia state law is brought into line with laws in neighboring states, we could really see the local craft beer industry take off. Go to to sign the petition.


High demand for college student housing

One West Victory and The Hue opened in recent months. Both large apartment complexes are being marketed to college students, primarily SCAD attendees.

One West Victory is at the southeast corner of Barnard Street and Victory Drive. The Hue is on West Bay Street next to the bridge.

In 2013, we saw the opening of the Avenues on 61st, a townhouse development also marketed to area college students.

These developments have boosted population density and have sparked economic activity on lots that had been vacant or under utilized.

How many more such student-oriented apartment complexes can Savannah support?

As regular readers know, I’m an advocate of more apartment buildings in the downtown area, but I’d like to see them

marketed more broadly to older and year-round residents.

A new wave of restaurateurs?

Hugh Acheson’s The Florence is part of the One West Victory development. The “celebrity chef” also has highly-regarded restaurants in Athens and Atlanta, so his Savannah venture has attracted considerable attention from around the state and around the country.

The Grey will open soon in the old Greyhound bus terminal on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Owner John Morisano has lived in Savannah for several years, so he’s not exactly a newcomer, and Chef Mashama Bailey has local roots.

But Morisano’s and Bailey’s backgrounds have already helped the new venture attract important press, including a short piece in The Wall Street Journal.

Chef Bailey most recently worked at the acclaimed Prune in New York City.

According to its website, 39 Rue de Jean will open on West Oglethorpe Avenue in early spring 2015. It’s the sister to a restaurant of the same name in Charleston. Both spots are part of the Holy City Hospitality group.

The restaurant business is fickle and Savannah is a relatively small market, but if ventures like these are successful, more restaurateurs and chefs from around the country will consider an expansion into the Savannah market.


Pushing the physical boundaries

Ben Carter’s Broughton Street efforts are obviously in the heart of the Historic District, but all the other developments mentioned above are on the edges of it.

The Grey’s space was first used as a restaurant well over a decade ago, but the other sites have historically had much less intensive uses than they have now.

Breweries, apartment buildings, even restaurants – these types of businesses need space, sometimes much more space and sometimes considerably less expensive space than can be found in the Historic District.

These aren’t the only new types of businesses that are breaking new ground. For example, I hope to be writing soon about a recent surge in collaborative studio spaces for artists.

Fortunately, as I’ve noted here before, Savannah still has a lot of available land close to the traditional borders of downtown. If the local economy continues growing at its current pace, we could see some exciting developments in 2015 and beyond.


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Will chief take street-level crime seriously?

Mon, 12/08/2014 - 8:44pm

Joseph Lumpkin, the new chief of the Savannah-Chatham police department, seems to have hit a lot of the right rhetorical notes in his comments about violence in Savannah.

And it’s not all just talk. Building on various initiatives that were already in the works, Lumpkin has taken concrete steps to implement new strategies that might bear fruit in both the short and long term.

In his appearance before City Council on Nov. 25, Lumpkin delivered a clear and realistic overview of the problems we face and of the resources we already have or still need.

Early in those remarks, Lumpkin said, “From my perspective, if you don’t control street drugs, you’re going to have violent crime.”

Thank you, Chief Lumpkin.

There was a little echo of agreement from the aldermen when Lumpkin made that remark about the connection between drugs and violence, but Savannah leaders have for years tolerated highly visible and entirely predictable street-level drug dealing and prostitution in certain neighborhoods.

I am most familiar with the problem in the Jefferson Street corridor, but that’s obviously not the only trouble spot.

After decades of inaction, many neighborhood residents make no effort to call the police when they see criminal activity. New residents near Jefferson Street — including college-age renters — don’t see any reason to get involved.

I’ve heard anecdotal reports of greater police responsiveness to problems in the Jefferson Street corridor, but it’s going to take some real time and effort to convince residents that the police have any control of the street at all.

On my way home from the airport on Sunday night around midnight, I drove on Jefferson for a few blocks.

A woman was walking in the street toward traffic. As I swerved into the other lane to avoid her, she paused and looked intently in my direction.

I don’t think she was part of a neighborhood watch.

I didn’t see any obvious drug dealing on that particular trip, although someone was standing rather suspiciously in the shadows a block away on Barnard Street.

Maybe I should have called the cops, but there is similar activity on those blocks all day and all night. The police know that the suspicious activity is constant, right?

Let’s hope Chief Lumpkin is able to tackle the culture that has led Savannah to tolerate so much street-level crime. The police are going to have to be proactive about pockets of activity if they want cynical residents to speak up forthrightly.


City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via

By: Bill DawersSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Some sectors still struggle to recover

Sat, 12/06/2014 - 10:05pm

What happened seven years ago this month?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the U.S. economy went into recession in December 2007. The so-called “great recession” – a term I never really liked and have rarely used in this column – continued until June 2009.

While December 2007 might have marked the “official” beginning of the recession, it wasn’t like someone flipped a switch.

In 2005, credible but largely disregarded commentators were already predicting a major slowdown in the U.S. housing market would lead to a deep, protracted recession.

By spring 2007, I was using words like “dire” to describe the Savannah housing market. At that point, the ratio of home sales to new listings and new home permits was so far out of whack that a collapse was inevitable, but many people continued to seek out bright spots in the data.

At the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual Economic Outlook Luncheon in January 2008, a University of Georgia economist pegged the odds of a recession at less than 50 percent and even predicted that housing would be rebounding by year’s end.

For many, the depth of the recession didn’t become clear until after the financial crisis and stock market collapse in late 2008. I’ve even heard from business people who claim that they weren’t negatively impacted by the downturn until 2009.

So we may have an official beginning date for the recession, but our individual experiences vary widely.

Ditto regarding the recession’s end.

In June 2009, many economic indicators were still far, far below their previous highs, and the slow turn from economic contraction to economic expansion was virtually unnoticed in real time.

Employment is generally a lagging indicator of economic conditions, so the nation continued shedding jobs for months after the end of the recession.

I was thinking about some of this history as I combed through the October 2014 employment numbers released recently by the Georgia Department of Labor.

Seven years later, are we in better economic shape than we were before the recession?

In October 2014, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had an estimated 166,700 nonfarm payroll jobs. In October 2007, we had 162,300 jobs.

So, yes, we have more jobs than we had in 2007. However, if we had not had a recession and had seen relatively modest job growth through the last seven years, we’d now have at least 5,000 more jobs.

In October 2014, Savannah metro area unemployment stood at 6.7 percent, with 12,217 people unemployed. In October 2007, our unemployment rate was 4.0 percent, with just 7,106 unemployed.

We’ve been seeing some strong employment gains in recent months, but we need to see even stronger growth to make up for the ground lost to the recession and the slow recovery.

Other measures also suggest that the recovery remains incomplete.

For example, it has been great to see this year’s increase in passengers at the airport, but the number of enplanements and deplanements in October was still slightly below the 2007 level.

Had we not seen a collapse in sales tax revenue during and after the recession, we would have seen considerably more spending on infrastructure projects. Perhaps a new arena would be under construction, and we would probably already be enjoying a new cultural arts center.

By contrast, other sectors seem to have made up all the lost ground from the recession.

For example, the number of containers handled by the Georgia ports was about 25 percent higher in October 2014 than in October 2007. We’ve also been setting records for hotel bed tax collections.

There are many other reasons for optimism about the Savannah area economy, so it’s reasonable to expect that employment will catch up.

It’s unclear whether we’ll ever regain the 4,000 construction jobs lost during the bust, but we experienced job growth of approximately 2 percent over the last 12 months — considerably faster than the rate of population growth.

Over the last year, the local unemployment rate declined from 7.3 percent to 6.7 percent, so it seems likely that the rate will be below 6 percent by fall 2015.

On balance, that seems like positive news, but it’s worth keeping in mind — especially here at the holidays – that thousands of area families are still suffering the effects of the recession, even it officially ended more than five years ago.


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

By: Bill DawersSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: recommends city’s ‘can’t miss bites’

Mon, 12/01/2014 - 8:12pm

A new post at about Savannah’s food scene has been making the rounds on social media — and for good reason.

“5 Can’t-Miss Bites In Savannah, Georgia” by People’s senior style editor Alex Apatoff is a great bit of press for the Savannah Food and Wine Festival, for a handful of restaurants and for the city itself.

“You’ll have to forgive my fake Southern accent, but after visiting Savannah, Georgia for the first time, it’s a little hard to resist,” writes Apatoff. “Also hard to resist? The amazing food jam-packed into a not-very-big city.”

The food scene in this not-very-big city has changed dramatically over the last decade or so with more chefs presenting fresh interpretations of Southern traditions.

People’s list begins by raving about the avocado toast at The Collins Quarter, the relatively new café on Bull Street at the corner of Oglethorpe Avenue.

Apatoff writes: “It was almost too pretty to eat — until I took the first bite, at which point all bets were off.”

The Collins Quarter isn’t the only newish spot to be highlighted. Apatoff praises the quality and beauty of the chocolates at Chocolat by Adam Turoni at 323 W. Broughton St., and the Frito Pie served by Dept. 7 East at Taste of Savannah.

Originally focused on lunch service, Dept. 7 East at 7 E. Broughton St. is now open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

The People piece also heaps praise on Wall’s BBQ at 515 York Lane, which opened just over 50 years ago.

People’s list is rounded out, fittingly, by a trip to Leopold’s Ice Cream at 212 E. Broughton St.

Apatoff notes how hard it was to whittle the list to five: “This was not an easy decision. You should probably go visit to judge for yourself.”

We’ve got some excellent high-end restaurants in Savannah, but it seems like there has been more attention in recent years on simpler foods and less expensive options.

Consider Apatoff’s take on Wall’s: “There’s no ambiance (though we were digging the Sam Cooke CD playing) but who needs it when you get perfectly-cooked meat, two sides and a little extra cornbread because it’s still hot — all for $10?”

There has been a lot of press in recent weeks about shopping local here at the holidays, but there is something to be said for eating local too.

It’s obviously great when our more expensive and more popular restaurants attract major press, but it’s nice when smaller establishments get some national attention too.


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSImage caption: recommends city’s ‘can’t miss bites’Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Holidays good time to discover businesses downtown

Sat, 11/29/2014 - 10:05pm

There has been a lot of public angst in 2014 about the fate of the Historic District’s locally owned businesses, but many are obviously thriving.

And the holidays are the perfect time to get out and discover – or rediscover – some of the small businesses that bring so much character to the city.

I’d especially recommend taking advantage of several upcoming special events that bring the community together.

On Thursday, Dec. 4, from 5 to 9 p.m., the Downtown Design District will host its annual Holiday Walk.

According to the organization’s Facebook page, the Downtown Design District currently includes 31 businesses between Liberty Lane and Gordon Street. Many of the shops are along Whitaker Street, with more on Bull and Drayton streets.

Stores that participate in the Holiday Walk typically offer a range of specials and refreshments. They also offer an eclectic mix of goods, services and professional expertise that you don’t see every day.

On Friday, Dec. 5 from 5 to 9 p.m., the Wright Square Merchants host their annual Holiday Open House.

Wright Square is on Bull Street just south of Broughton Street. For decades, the small storefronts on York and State streets have proven ideal for a variety of locally owned businesses. Some are relatively new, while others have become staples of the downtown landscape.

City Market — which also boasts a high percentage of locally owned shops, galleries, restaurants and bars — will host its Holiday Open House on Dec. 5 from 6 to 9 p.m. More than 500 luminaria will be seen in the courtyard.

And you’ll find lots of fun activities coming up next weekend on River Street. Special events are scheduled from 4 to 10 p.m. on Dec. 5 and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Dec. 6.

The Waterfront Association’s 2014 Lighted Christmas Parade, which features more than 40 entries, will begin on the west end of River Street at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 6. The parade ends at City Market.

The 2014 Grand Marshal is Stratton Leopold.

It says something nice about Savannah when an acclaimed movie producer like Leopold is best known around town for his ice cream store.


More transitions on tap west of MLK

Given the ongoing changes to the downtown commercial landscape, it seemed only a matter of time before some other use would take over the Bridgestone/Firestone on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near where Broughton Street dead ends.

According to an article last week in the Savannah Morning News, a hotelier has purchased the highly visible site. There are numerous existing and planned hotels along MLK and in the blocks further west, so we’ll likely see more hotels headed to that side of town.

Of course, SCAD already has a major presence on MLK and on the west side of downtown. There are also important historic sites along the boulevard, like the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum and the Coastal Heritage Society’s various Tricentennial Park sites.

The new transit center is also just west of MLK.

These community assets and the large tracts of under utilized land are among the reasons I’ve been so bullish over the years about the prospects for future development along the northern portions of MLK and down the hill toward the site of the planned new arena.

As I’ve discussed previously, the public debate about future development has been hampered by confusion over the word “west” and by the idea that certain Savannah streets must serve as de facto dividing lines between neighborhoods.

All the sites mentioned here are right on MLK or within a few minutes’ walk west of it. I encourage interested readers to spend some time wandering around these various sites so they can better see the potential.

By the way, you’ll be reading soon about two new restaurants on the west side of MLK.

The Grey is poised to open in the former Greyhound station on MLK just south of Broughton, in the space last occupied by Café Metropole. The newly restored Vitrolite façade has already transformed the streetscape.

The French restaurant 39 Rue de Jean will be opening soon at 605 West Oglethorpe Ave. It’s attached to the massive new Embassy Suites.

You’ll also be reading more soon about The Creative Coast’s Creators’ Foundry in an old industrial building on Boundary Street.


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Metro area continues to add jobs

Mon, 11/24/2014 - 7:55pm

The latest estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor show continued strong job growth in the Savannah metro area.

Nonfarm payroll employment in Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties was estimated at 166,700 in October. That’s up a solid 2 percent from a year earlier.

That rate is almost certainly faster than the rate of population growth.

Private employment increased by an even more impressive 2.7 percent over the year, but that number was offset by cuts in government jobs. Public employment has lagged throughout the protracted economic recovery, which technically began over five years ago.

Not surprisingly, the leisure and hospitality sector continues to post strong year-over-year numbers. The estimated 24,200 payroll jobs in October represented a 5.7 percent annual increase.

We’ve also seen strong gains over the past year in the sector that includes transportation, warehousing and utilities, which added 1,600 jobs between October 2013 and October 2014. That’s an impressive 15.5 percent increase.

The Savannah metro area has also seen solid growth over the past year in professional and business services.

As was noted recently in this newspaper, the Coastal Empire Economic Monitor for the third quarter showed steady growth.

The report, which is overseen by Michael Toma at the Armstrong State University Center for Regional Analysis, noted that the number of new home construction permits “represents the strongest signal of activity in the residential housing market since the fall of 2007.”

The Coastal Empire Economic Monitor’s indices suggest continued growth at least through the middle of 2015.

Georgia State University’s Economic Forecasting Center is also predicting good news for the Savannah area economy in 2015. Savannah is expected to lead the state’s metro areas with a 2.8 percent job growth rate.

All this is good news, but it’s worth noting that much of the state continues to see weak employment data. In nine of Georgia’s metro areas, the annual rate of payroll job growth was 1 percent or less in October.

Also, Georgia had the highest unemployment rate in the country in October — slightly worse than the District of Columbia and Mississippi.

Can more vibrant areas like Atlanta and Savannah continue to prosper if growth remains weak in so much of the state? The answer might be yes, but the broader problems plaguing Georgia — including education, transportation and health care — will surely have broad-based, long-lasting impacts if allowed to fester.

I’ll follow up soon with the October estimates for the local employment rate and other labor force characteristics.


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: What's next for Savannah tour guides?

Sat, 11/22/2014 - 10:26pm

Most of you probably already have heard about the new federal lawsuit challenging the city of Savannah’s licensing procedures for tour guides.

The four tour guides and would-be guides who have filed the suit are being supported by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian nonprofit law firm that has litigated major cases involving issues such as school vouchers, eminent domain and interstate wine sales.

The Institute for Justice has been involved with similar suits against tour guide licensing procedures in other cities. The core of its argument is that the bureaucratic requirements amount to an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech.

In early June of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the city of New Orleans could continue to require every tour guide to pass a criminal background check, a drug test and a written test.

“New Orleans, by requiring the licensees to know the city and not be felons or drug addicts,” concluded the court in a brief opinion, “has effectively promoted the government interests, and without those protections for the city and its visitors, the government interest would be unserved.”

To my mind, the opinion raises more questions than it answers. What does it mean “to know the city” of New Orleans? Don’t we all know lots of people who “know” Savannah in interesting ways and could give quality tours without having to battle city bureaucracy to obtain a license?

A few weeks after the New Orleans opinion was published, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected similar requirements for tour guides in Washington, D.C.

In a lengthy and entertaining opinion, the court dismissed a variety of arguments made by the District’s lawyers.

“The District failed to present any evidence the problems it sought to thwart actually exist,” concluded the court. “Even assuming those harms are real, there is no evidence the exam requirement is an appropriately tailored antidote.”

Given the conflicting rulings by the appellate courts, the Institute for Justice is calling on the Supreme Court to decide the fate of the licensing requirements in Savannah and in a handful of other cities. (The D.C. opinion implies that most American cities have no such requirements for tour guides.)

It has been interesting to hear the local reaction to the suit.

I’ve seen a considerable number of online commenters, even some who generally argue for smaller government, support the test and other city-mandated hurdles. Underlying many of those comments is the assumption that the test will protect consumers and lead to better tours.

Of course, both the appellate court rulings have emphasized that, once licensed, tour guides have the right to say anything they want to their clients.

Just for kicks, I took the sample tour guide test on the city of Savannah’s website. I got the correct answer on 16 of the 20 sample multiple choice questions. That’s a score of 80 percent, which would be just high enough to pass the full test.

I bet there are hundreds of readers of this column who would do better than I did.

Of the 20 sample questions online, three deal with Native American history and two with African American history. Nine of the questions are related to General Oglethorpe, the city plan or basic local geography.

I missed a couple of questions that I should have gotten right, but I’ll confess that I had absolutely no idea that the “advent of the boll weevil” was “Savannah’s greatest commercial disaster in the second decade of the 20th century.”

Does the tour guide test with its $100 fee serve a legitimate government purpose? What about the other requirements?

For whatever it’s worth, I’ve developed a healthy respect over the years for Savannah’s community of tour guides.

Successful guides not only have to be knowledgeable and entertaining, they also have to project friendliness and approachability even when they’re having bad days. Sure, lots of other jobs require friendliness, but few require the sustained pleasantness demanded of tour guides.

How accurate are the guides when they’re detailing the city’s documented history? I’d say they are very accurate, but public comments in recent months have been filled with anecdotes of glaring errors. Those individual examples are sometimes used to suggest widespread negligence.

But it’s worth keeping in mind that even diligent tour guides might make errors and that all the current guides passed the required test.

As the federal lawsuit moves forward, we should also consider the broader tension between the rights of citizens and the legitimate interests of a city government. In that respect, the issue of tour guide licensing is related to other important issues, like the city of Savannah’s assumption that it has the right to ban 18- to 20-year olds from restaurants that serve alcohol.

It will certainly be interesting to see how Savannah officials respond to the new lawsuit. If the issue is picked up by the Supreme Court, it will be especially interesting to hear from Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, a native Savannahian.


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: What's next for the current Savannah arena site?

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 11:04am

So, if we ever build that new arena just west of downtown, what should we do with the current one?

Now that the public debate is beginning in earnest, here’s a quick recap of ideas from this column over the years.

Speaking really broadly, we have three general options.

Some want the current arena site to remain in public hands.

At City Council’s recent retreat, there was talk of a movie soundstage. Columnist Tom Barton has suggested a new stadium.

Ideas like these are certainly worth consideration at this early stage, but let’s keep in mind that the arena — and the entire Civic Center — sits on some of the most valuable property in the city.

If we get that land back into private hands, we’ll encourage private sector economic activity and see increased property tax collections in perpetuity.

A second option for the current arena site would be to sell the land to the highest bidder.

That almost certainly means more hotels. We love tourists here at City Talk, but it’s hard to make the case that we need additional major hotel construction in the heart of the Historic District. There is ample land on downtown’s fringes for new hotels.

So a third option for the current arena site is to guide private development that would benefit most downtown stakeholders.

That probably means some sort of mixed-use development that includes retail, office and residential development and that re-creates as much of the Oglethorpe plan as possible. As has been noted here often, the Oglethorpe plan has proved vibrant and versatile right into the modern day.

One of the most intriguing ideas I’ve heard over the years would be to have both a grocery store and a movie theater on the footprint of the current arena. Since the arena floor is below ground level, it would be pretty straightforward to have a level of subterranean parking, a grocery store at ground level and a multiplex above. That plan would still leave the entire Civic Center parking lot for residential and commercial development.

We could consider affordable housing for part of the site, but we could also consider a more focused form of workforce housing that would make small apartments available to entry-level public school teachers and public safety officers.

We’ve got some time to have a spirited community debate about the fate of the site, and we need to take some time to make sure we get it right. Here’s hoping city leaders listen to their constituents about the options and don’t formulate a grand plan behind closed doors.


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Recent developments shine spotlight on music in Savannah

Sun, 11/16/2014 - 11:21am

In recent weeks, we’ve seen an especially strong spotlight on the arts in Savannah.

The Telfair Art Fair and other offerings have showcased local visual artists, and a variety of developments have brought attention from around the world to the Savannah music scene.

For starters, the Savannah Music Festival recently released its 2015 lineup. The news of the festival’s first foray into opera — a collaboration with the Savannah VOICE Festival and Savannah Philharmonic — attracted particular notice.

The festival will once again feature stellar musicians from a broad range of traditions, and the 2015 schedule seems especially notable for performances by accomplished artists such as Lucinda Williams, Mavis Staples, Dianne Reeves and Rosanne Cash.

Savannah Stopover Musical Festival also recently released a portion of its 2015 lineup.

Savannah Stopover, which brings dozens of indie bands to town for three heady days in March, is only entering its 5th year, but the initial lineup got significant notice in the music press, including from influential sites like Paste Magazine and Brooklyn Vegan.

On Nov. 15, the Savannah Children’s Choir hosted “A Night in Bohemia” to benefit the nonprofit’s travel scholarship fund. The event at the SCAD Museum of Art featured the Metropolitan Opera’s Keith Miller in a version of “La Boheme.”

And it’s worth noting that Savannah’s music community has received attention from around the world since the passing of Jonathan Athon, the bass player for Black Tusk. Athon died as a result of injuries sustained in a traffic accident.

I don’t know how many readers of City Talk listen to metal or have even heard of Black Tusk, but the band was founded in 2005 and has been touring internationally for years.

Since Athon’s passing, there has been an amazing outpouring of support, especially via social media. Much of that support has referenced Savannah’s tight-knit music community.

In a 2013 interview with Oregon Music News, Athon himself discussed how the compactness of the city contributes to a sense of togetherness.

“Everyone is so artistic and so into their different things that everyone meshes,” Athon told the interviewer. “You’ll see metal kids at the hip-hop night. You’ll see hip-hop kids at the country night. Everyone gets along. It’s so small that you have to.”

And that seems an appropriate metaphor for the broader community of musicians and music lovers in Savannah. The local scene has many subsets, but they overlap in a variety of strange and wonderful ways.


Upcoming legislative session could impact Hutchinson Island’s future

So, casino gambling on Hutchinson Island?

Living down here on the coast, it can be pretty easy to divorce oneself from what happens under the gold dome in Atlanta.

But Savannahians might want to pay special attention to the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January.

It looks as if locally elected state lawmakers might push for some form of legalized gambling on Hutchinson Island even though Savannah Harbor Associates, which has been working for several years on a 27-acre mixed-use development, has a different vision for the island.

It’s also worth noting that the city of Savannah recently committed to build a joint police and fire station on Hutchinson Island to encourage development. The Savannah Chamber of Commerce is pushing for $14 million in state funding for Slip 1 on the island, also in the name of economic development.

It’s worth remembering, too, that the 2014 legislative session included an attempt by Chatham County to de-annex Hutchinson Island from the city of Savannah.

In other words, we might be on the verge of spending many millions in public money on Hutchinson Island, but elected officials and private developers are not all on the same page.

Will a coherent vision for Hutchinson Island emerge? Should we pursue major public expenditures when the future is so uncertain?

In 2015, Georgia lawmakers might also consider other legislation of particular interest in Savannah, such as funding sources for transportation infrastructure projects.

The coastal region that includes Savannah soundly rejected T-SPLOST a couple of years ago, and it seems likely area voters would reject similar proposals in the future.

So what options might we have for upgrading roads that serve the port? Or for enhancing safety on some of our stressed roadways, like Highway 80?

Let’s hope Savannahians pay close attention as state leaders consider questions like these.


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Better connectivity needed for stretches of Savannah's Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Tue, 11/11/2014 - 10:44am

One afternoon last week on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, I watched a handicapped man get off a Chatham Area Transit bus at 33rd Street.

He walked slowly but safely off the bus and stepped into the street, but then he had to face another obstacle. He had to step up over the curb onto an uneven tree lawn.

There are lovely brick sidewalks along that stretch of MLK, but there are lengthy stretches where there are no crosswalks. So the sidewalks lack ramps that lead into the street.

In other words, someone with a physical handicap or someone pushing a stroller can walk north and south along MLK, but there are many blocks where it’s difficult — and dangerous — to cross the street.

Even an able-bodied pedestrian has to be exceedingly careful to cross certain stretches of MLK. Near 33rd Street, you have to cross a parking lane and two travel lanes to get to the median, which itself is so narrow that you can feel the gusts of passing cars.

Ever so often, a bicyclist will cross MLK along that stretch. I’ve seen a couple of young riders literally jump their bikes up onto the median, but it seems that most riders dismount and carry their bikes across it.

That’s a cumbersome process, but a lot more efficient than riding several blocks north or south before doing a U-turn at a busy intersection.

I ride my bike around downtown a lot, but I don’t feel safe on MLK because of the traffic patterns. So it was no surprise that in a relatively short period of time I saw six cyclists headed south on the sidewalk rather than venture into the street.

The city of Savannah made a big investment in the newish median and brick sidewalks along that portion of MLK, but we ended up creating an urban speedway with no east-west connectivity for blocks at a stretch.

A block over on Montgomery Street, other problems are presented by the unusually wide travel lanes, the unused on-street parking and the poorly maintained sidewalk. In front of one large business, the sidewalk literally disappears into a parking lot.

How much value could we add to the neighborhood if it had better connectivity and friendlier streets?

That’s a tough question to answer, but it’s pretty clear that we will in fact see better street designs on Montgomery and MLK eventually.

After all, the neighborhood that I’m talking about is less than a 10-minute walk from the Landmark Historic District. It’s on high ground, and there is a lot of available land.

In other words, it’s primed for major development in 10 or 20 years. Those future developers will insist on safer streets and sidewalks.

Let’s hope that existing residents and businesses don’t have to wait that long.


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


By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: New historical marker at Carnegie Library highlights ongoing Georgia Historical Society efforts

Sun, 11/09/2014 - 11:17am

At 11 a.m. on Nov. 13, the Georgia Historical Society will hold the dedication ceremony for a new historical marker at the Carnegie Library at 537 East Henry St.

The marker will recognize the work of the Colored Library Association of Savannah, which was founded by eleven black men in 1906. According to the marker, “In 1913, the Association successfully petitioned the Carnegie Corporation of New York for funds to build a permanent home for the collection.”

Finished in 1915, Savannah’s Carnegie Library is one of the city’s “few examples of Prairie School architecture” and later was “the home library to James Alan McPherson, Pulitzer Prize–winning short story writer and essayist and Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

That’s pretty rich history for a modest block of East Henry Street, but we live in a city dotted with evocative places like the Carnegie Library. Behind those sites are the people who imagined and created them — like the eleven visionaries of the Colored Library Association of Savannah.

The Georgia Historical Society has done similar work over the years to spotlight neglected aspects of African-American history across the state and right here in Savannah.

The society’s Georgia Civil Rights Trail includes a couple dozen historical markers statewide, including seven in Chatham County. The list of honored sites includes the McKelvey-Powell Building at 714 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and the boyhood home of Robert Sengstacke Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender, at the corner of West Bay and Albion streets.

Savannah will soon have a historical marker commemorating the 1961 boycott and sit-ins that were so vital to the local civil rights movement.

There are obviously other historical markers that document the black experience in Savannah, including one erected by the historical society and the city of Savannah near the site of “the weeping time” — the largest slave sale in Georgia history.

I recently talked at length with society president and CEO W. Todd Groce about the historical marker program, about various efforts to document black history and about the difficult connection between scholarly research and popular tourism.

The Georgia Historical Society was painted in a fairly negative light by “Savannah, Both Sides,” a recent New York Times travel article that I discussed in this column in October. A casual reader of the piece would assume that the historical society has ignored black history, but that’s a tough case to make.

During the meeting, Groce and I examined a variety of relevant items archived at the society’s research center at Hodgson Hall at 501 Whitaker St.

For example, we looked at some of the 19th century photographs by William E. Wilson. I first studied Wilson’s work in the 1990s when I was assisting curator Carroll Greene with an exhibit about black history at the Beach Institute. The photos are simply amazing, and I was thrilled to find recently that they are available in a digital archive.

The NYT piece might have mischaracterized the work of the historical society, but I think the article nevertheless argued compellingly that many Savannah tourists “leave without a clue about the essential role Georgia’s oldest African-American community has played here.”

Groce noted that his organization’s research and educational initiatives make it a key player in heritage tourism, but I’ll add that the society obviously can’t bear the sole burden of changing the way tourists see Savannah.

But do Savannah’s visitors want to hear about slavery, about the civil rights movement and about other darker chapters of the city’s history?

“Tourists want authenticity,” Groce argued as we sat in his office at the new Jepson House Education Center, across Gaston Street from Hodgson Hall.

I agree with Groce on that point. You’ll hear cynics say tourists really just want “fluff,” but we get many visitors who want a deeper understanding of the city and its history.

So how do we make the complex history of Savannah, including its ever-changing racial dynamics, more accessible to interested but casual tourists?

After all, consider the list of historical markers above. Many of the key sites related to local black history are not on the well-worn paths traveled by tourists.

There are obviously many possible avenues for continuing the civic discussion.

Just last week, Savannah Morning News reporter Julia Ritchey took an extended look at the debate about historical accuracy in the tour industry.

The city of Savannah might revamp the current test for tour guide certification, but, as I’ve noted previously in this column, a federal appeals court ruling in July has deemed a similar test in Washington, D.C., unconstitutional.

Groce would like to see city officials spearhead an effort that would result in better resources for tourists and for tour guides.

“We would be willing to work with the city on a fully integrated tour,” Groce said.

Savannah city government certainly has qualified professionals on staff who could guide such an effort. At the same time, it’s hard to know if we can trust a bureaucracy that seems so eager to destroy 36 residences of Meldrim Row, which was developed in the 1880s as housing for black workers.

As I argued here last month, I also think that organizations with the mission of promoting black history could be doing a much better job of marketing themselves. Other organizations already engaged in significant research about black history could probably also promote their scholarship more effectively.

By the way, I should add that a more inclusive sense of Savannah’s history would reach beyond issues solely of race. We’re a city of immigrants, after all, many of whom came to America with little or nothing. There are surely many untold stories that deserve our attention.

As Groce said near the end of our meeting: “It’s not a white or a black story – it’s an American story.”


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Can residential development keep pace with Savannah's downtown hotel construction?

Tue, 11/04/2014 - 7:24am

A recent City Talk column praised many aspects of hotelier Richard Kessler’s Plant Riverside project at the west end of River Street.

Of course, he’s not the only hotel developer in town. Other hotels along River Street will also bring economic activity, and we’re likely to see more hotels built on the edges of the Historic District.

As we consider current and future development, it’s worth keeping in mind that there is no law mandating that hotels be built on every lot that can accommodate one. We could have large-scale residential development too.

Of course, it’s easy to see why new hotels are dominating the downtown landscape. Leisure tourists and business travelers love Savannah, and we have solid systems in place for attracting even more of them in the future.

We also have government bureaucracies and elected officials who are betting on the trend.

I’m sure some hoteliers would counter that they routinely face significant bureaucratic hurdles, including thorny zoning and design restrictions.

But take a look at all the downtown hotels constructed over the last 20 years. The hurdles obviously aren’t insurmountable.

As the hotel business has been booming, the Historic District’s population has been decreasing. Maybe the trends aren’t related, but the shift is impacting the downtown economy.

Take a look at the U.S. Census tract that includes most of the Historic District from River Street to Liberty Street. From 2000 to 2010, the population of that tract fell 14.5 percent to 1,886.

An adjacent tract that includes Abercorn Street south of Liberty saw a similar decline.

Sure, we’re likely to see continued residential development on the upper floors of Broughton Street and to see new residential infill throughout the downtown area.

Sure, on the fringes of downtown, we’re seeing larger apartment complexes marketed primarily to college students.

But if we had a clearer sense of what we want the downtown area to look like in 10, 20, 30 years, we could get policies in place that would incentivize residential development in a more meaningful way.

Imagine the impact on the downtown economy if a couple of the newer hotels on Bay Street were apartment buildings instead. Imagine if the Plant Riverside development included a large apartment complex.

When I’ve hit these themes in previous columns, some readers have assumed that I want Savannah to attract fewer tourists or that I think the tourism industry should stop growing.

That’s not the case at all. I’d like many more tourists each year to have the chance to enjoy Savannah’s wonders.

But I’d also like more residents to be able to afford to live in safe, lovely neighborhoods near the core of the city.


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


By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Treylor Park brings inventive menu, reasonable prices to Savannah's Bay Street

Sun, 11/02/2014 - 12:57pm

Treylor Park, the new restaurant and bar at 115 East Bay St., has only been open a couple of weeks, but I’ve managed to make two trips already.

The comfortable main room is right off Bay Street, but on both visits we decided to sit at the bar in the courtyard, a really pleasant spot along the lane.

As we perused the menu on our first trip, the bartender said, “Everything’s literal.”

So, yes, if you order the Popcorn Shrimp ($12), you get shrimp served over popcorn. It’s delicious. I also recommend the fried banana pepper ring appetizer ($8).

The entrees are similarly clever, unexpected and flavorful. The Chicken & Pancake Tacos ($10) are served with a honey chili sauce. The Chicken Biscuit ($8) is served with a delicious sausage gravy and a wonderfully dense buttermilk biscuit.

And how about those prices? With most items in the $10 range, Treylor Park’s menu seems certain to attract regulars.

The bar menu includes a variety of tempting cocktails priced at $10, but there are lots of cheaper options, including $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon drafts

Treylor Park is close to several hotels and heavy tourist areas, but on both my trips the comfortable new spot was buzzing with local folks. That bodes well.

View photos from the grand opening on Spotted®.


Do Savannahians want a new Westside stadium?

Last Thursday, Savannah City Council considered the possibility of building a baseball stadium near the proposed site of the new arena, which will be funded by the current round of the special purpose local option sales tax.

In 2013, there was a contentious civic debate about whether we actually needed a new arena and about where one should be built, but city officials eventually embraced the longstanding plan to build a new arena on land that had been acquired for the project just west of downtown.

The stadium debate has played out quite differently. Hardball Capital, owner of the Sand Gnats, has made it clear that Grayson Stadium does not meet the 21st century needs of baseball or of business. A consultant’s study focused on the idea of a new stadium at the Savannah River Landing site at the east end of River Street, but the study left so many unanswered questions and employed such dubious methodology that it didn’t end up being worth much.

City Manager Stephanie Cutter and her team are now proposing that the stadium project be considered as part of the proposed “Canal District” that includes the new arena site.

The Westside Canal District concept got its first major public airing last year, but it turns out that Thomas Perdue, who was city architect from 2001 to 2007, oversaw a conceptual design of the district about a decade ago.

A multi-use baseball stadium was included in a conceptual drawing that you can still find on the website for Perdue’s current business, Design Affiliation Architecture in Jacksonville. The baseball stadium was considered for a site off West Gwinnett Street immediately west of Chatham Steel.

The city’s plan to build a new arena in the vicinity was widely known a decade ago, but I don’t recall any public discussion about building a baseball stadium there.

If city officials have been considering building a new baseball stadium on the Westside for so long, a couple of questions immediately present themselves. Did the possibility of a new Westside stadium pre-empt more aggressive spending on renovations to Grayson Stadium?

If city officials were already considering the Canal District for a new stadium, why wasn’t that site scrutinized in the recent study that focused only on Savannah River Landing?

I was and still am a supporter of the longstanding plan to build a new arena just west of downtown, but a stadium is a different creature.

The recent study recommending a new stadium on the riverfront might have had all sorts of problems, but the report did make valid points about the virtues of visibility. That Westside site would not be highly visible.

It also seems clear the owners of a minor league baseball team would want to operate a stadium that can attract a wide range of private events. It seems unlikely that a new facility on West Gwinnett Street could attract as many private renters as a stadium on the river — or in Daffin Park.

Still, the Westside site seems worth consideration, assuming that Savannahians want to make a long-term financial commitment to having a minor league baseball team.


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSTopic: City Talk