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CITY TALK: Pros and cons of expanding city's to-go cup zone

Sat, 01/24/2015 - 9:12pm

Savannah officials are dropping a few of the more problematic proposals from a draft revision of the city’s alcohol ordinance.

According to information on the city’s website (http://savannahga.gov/alcohol), city staff are scrapping the proposed requirements that many license holders hire additional security even if they have no history of police calls and that 18- to 20-year-olds be banned from restaurants that serve alcohol after 10 p.m.

While many of us are relieved to see these burdensome, unnecessary and probably counterproductive elements taken off the table, it remains something of a mystery how any city official could have thought these were workable ideas in the first place.

According to the city’s website, a “multi-departmental City team” spent “more than a year” drafting the proposed revision, which was unleashed on skeptical and angry citizens on the Friday before Labor Day, exactly one business day before the first forums for public input.

The latest revision, which will be released in the coming weeks, presumably still will create much-needed new categories of license holders, and we’ll likely see changes to the “hybrid” license, which has been required for restaurants that essentially turn into bars late at night.

According to reporting in this newspaper last week by Eric Curl, city officials are still considering another key element of the draft released last fall: the expansion of the to-go cup zone into Forsyth Park.

I wrote one short column about the proposed expansion of the to-go cup zone, but this is a subject worth further debate and discussion.

The current to-go cup zone includes much the Historic District, but many Savannahians don’t know the actual boundaries.

Many assume the zone extends into or even beyond Forsyth Park, but Jones Street is the southern boundary.

On the other hand, the zone likely extends farther in other directions than you think.

To-go cups are legal all the way to Boundary Street on the west side of town and beyond Randolph Street on the east side, as well as on much of Hutchinson Island.

The city’s draft ordinance would extend the zone into Forsyth Park with a rectangle bounded by Drayton Street, Whitaker Street and Park Avenue.

That means patrons of the Forsyth Park Café could get a beer and wander anywhere in the park with it — something that apparently already is happening from time to time.

Also, the to-go cup boundary would end the murkiness of the regulations for special events in Forsyth Park when many spectators bring coolers of beer or bottles of wine even if the event itself is not selling alcohol.

But is the status quo really that murky?

There seems to be a broadly accepted practice of simply allowing spectators to bring alcohol to performances as long as plastic cups are used.

If we expand the to-go cup zone into Forsyth Park, we will see folks drinking out in the open more often, but would that be a problem? Do we see significant problems with drinking in the squares where to-go cups are already legal?

My biggest concern about the city’s initial proposal to expand the to-go cup zone is that the new map draws a clear line between Forsyth Park and neighboring commercial areas.

Over the years in this column, I’ve often noted Savannah’s tendency to treat important streets as dividing lines rather than as neighborhood centers.

How much sense would it make for to-go cups to be legal on the north side of Park Avenue while The Sentient Bean on the south side of the street can’t even allow beer or wine drinkers to sit at outdoor tables along the sidewalk?

If we’re going to expand the to-go cup zone — a move that I favor — then the new map should include the businesses on the edges of Forsyth Park, too.

In fact, if we’re going to expand the to-go cup zone, I’d favor a bolder move that would extend the boundaries along the Bull Street corridor south of Forsyth Park too, all the way to Victory Drive.

Such a move might exacerbate some problems with vagrancy, but it also might serve as an economic development tool and encourage new investment. Officials in Ohio, for example, have been considering allowing many cities in the state to create “outdoor refreshment areas” akin to Savannah’s to-go cup zone.

So there are many different ways of thinking about the expansion of the to-go cup zone. It will be interesting to see how the public debate develops and to hear where elected leaders stand.

Savannah officials are still also considering whether to allow 18- to 20-year-olds into live music venues. I have written a lot about that issue in the past, and I will return to it in an upcoming column.

 

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

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

CITY TALK: For 'fall-down drunken St. Paddy partying'

Mon, 01/19/2015 - 10:37pm

Up in Sullivan’s Island, S.C., folks are trying to get control of their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

“Mainly,” writes Charleston Post and Courier columnist Brian Hicks, “they want to cut out some of the vomiting and public urination.”

Hicks quotes Sullivan’s Island Mayor Pat O’Neil: “If you want that kind of party, Savannah is only two hours away.”

Hicks adds: “If you want fall-down drunken St. Paddy partying, Savannah is your town, not Sullivan’s.”

Savannah is very different from Sullivan’s Island, obviously, and we have the infrastructure to handle some big festivals, including ones where the bars are packed.

Still, even though we have a large Irish-American population and the weeks leading up to the parade are dotted with traditional events, St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah has become known to much of the outside world as a holiday devoted to blackout drinking.

Some bars and hotels make big profits on St. Patrick’s Day, but there are obvious costs, too. Tourism is booming and tourists are spending more money than ever in Savannah, but many avoid Savannah on St. Patrick’s Day. Some businesses essentially shut down for the multi-day holiday because the partying is just too disruptive.

Attempts to rein in the drinking by gating River Street and requiring revelers to wear wristbands to drink outside seem to have worked to some degree. The crowds in recent years look nothing like some of the photos from the 1990s that keep getting circulated on social media as if they were new.

But the restrictions have also had the unintended consequence of driving away somewhat older, somewhat more sober locals who aren’t going to jump through hoops to go to their usual haunts.

Once you put in place the infrastructure to handle a large drunken party, you shouldn’t be surprised if you

end up with a large drunken party.

Just last week in this space, I noted that Savannah hasn’t really come up with a coherent vision of what we want St. Patrick’s Day to be. And we certainly haven’t come up with consistent policies that will work year in and year out, no matter what day of the week the parade is held.

This year, the actual holiday is on a Tuesday, so the heaviest downtown partying will likely be on the previous Saturday. In 2016, a leap year, St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Thursday, so it’s a little harder to predict whether big crowds will congregate downtown on the weekend before or the weekend after — or both.

If nothing else, we probably need a long-term plan to address perceptions like those apparently held by our good friends in Charleston.

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: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Downtown favorite returns with Lady Saigon Cuisine

Sat, 01/17/2015 - 9:29pm

For years, Saigon on Broughton Street was one of my favorite downtown restaurants.

The flavorful Vietnamese and Thai dishes, the moderate prices, the solid service and a variety of other factors made Saigon a staple of the downtown scene.

Saigon closed more than two years ago, but now owner Rachel Tran is back with Lady Saigon Cuisine.

Lady Saigon operates at Boomys, the establishment at 409 West Congress St. Boomys feels like a neighborhood bar for much of the day and often turns into a lively music venue at night.

It’s an unconventional arrangement, for sure, but a wonderful one, too.

Boomys might look like the type of place where you could order burgers, nachos and wings, but instead you can get dishes like Panang Curry ($11.99) and various stir fry entrees such as Cashew Chicken ($11.99). I enjoyed both of those on recent trips.

In fact, Tran has brought back the entire Saigon menu, plus new items. On future trips I hope to revisit some of the dishes I used to order regularly, including the Bahn Xeo ($8.99), a wonderful mix of ingredients built upon a Vietnamese “pancake,” and the Goi Cuon ($5.99), Vietnamese summer rolls.

On my second trip to Lady Saigon, owner Tran spotted me and shared her joy at being back in the restaurant business.

For a few years, Tran also ran Tantra Lounge on Broughton Street, which might have had the most diverse clientele of any downtown bar or restaurant. She certainly knows something about Savannah’s late-night scene, so it’s no surprise that Lady Saigon is serving a special menu after 11 p.m. on weeknights and after midnight on Friday and Saturday.

Tran said she eventually hopes to keep serving the whole menu all night.

Lady Saigon is also open for lunch, with specials from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. The restaurant plans to be open Sundays beginning Feb. 8. For more info, check out http://www.ladysaigoncuisine.com or Lady Saigon Cuisine on Facebook.

Boomys opened less than a year ago in the space previously occupied by Murphy’s Law Irish Pub. The busy live music calendar includes Savannah’s blues master Eric Culberson performing regularly on Wednesday nights. Boomys attracts a wide range of folks on busy nights on West Congress.

Is the police merger better off dead?

If I lived in unincorporated Chatham County, I’d probably be happy to see the dissolution of the merger that created the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department.

As a city resident who has been following the travails of the department and who has become accustomed to an institutional policy to ignore much of the street crime in my neighborhood, I don’t have particularly strong feelings either way about maintaining the merger.

If the department is well-managed, there are obvious benefits to keeping the merger in place. Surely, it’s easier for one department to facilitate the sharing of information, the purchasing of materials and other basic tasks, even if the city and the county had separate precincts.

With the negotiations between city and county officials now entering the endgame, I’ll ask in a slightly different way the same question I asked in this space a few weeks ago:

Will citizens, both of the city and the county, be better off if the merger continues under terms that give county officials more power? Or will we be better off if we revert to having two separate police departments?

If we retain the merger under a different structure, future negotiations can refine the issues of costs and control. If we end the merger, it’s over, and it won’t be coming back any time soon.

Also, it’s worth noting that a new merger agreement might involve the redrawing of some precinct boundaries. The merger’s failure would obviously result in the redrawing of boundaries. As we continue to see population shifts, the precinct lines will likely need to be adjusted in the coming decades.

All three scenarios reveal the weakness of the city of Savannah’s argument that a new sub-station requires a sprawling 1.6 acres on the extreme northern edge of the Central Precinct’s current boundaries.

So there’s another reason to oppose the city’s chosen site for the new Central Precinct site, aside from the fact that the new station has necessitated moving dozens of low-income residents from a neighborhood that is already gentrifying and that is on the cusp of more rapid gentrification.

It’s also aside from the fact that the city’s decision to destroy the homes of Meldrim Row between Montgomery Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard is a grievous blow to history, as Tim Coy eloquently argued in a letter to the editor last month. (See http://savannahnow.com/opinion/2014-12-27/sunday-letters-editor.)

 

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

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

CITY TALK: Neighborhoods have much in common in new 2nd District

Mon, 01/12/2015 - 9:58pm

In last Tuesday’s City Talk, I looked at some of the issues that might influence the Savannah city elections in 2015.

Later in the week, City Council approved the new aldermanic map that I referenced.

At a candidate forum a couple of election cycles ago, a resident argued that downtown needed a single alderman to represent the interests of the Historic District. A sitting member of council pointed out that the area was represented by both at-large council members and by aldermen from Districts 1 and 2.

Under the new map, however, most of downtown, however one defines it, is in District 2, which is represented by Mary Osborne.

Also joining the 2nd District are many residents of the Thomas Square and Metropolitan neighborhoods between Forsyth Park and Victory Drive. As we’ve examined in detail before, those neighborhoods are in the midst of major demographic shifts.

Between 2000 and 2010, neighborhoods south of Forsyth lost substantial percentages of black residents and gained many white residents. Those demographic trends have continued, and the population estimates underlying the new aldermanic map will be more than 5 years old by the November election.

It’s hard to say how the politics might play out, but residents south of Forsyth have many of the same concerns as those north of Forsyth, including crime, mixed-use neighborhood zoning, traffic calming and historic preservation.

Similar concerns apply to eastside neighborhoods that remain in the 2nd District.

Simply put, whatever the impacts in this year’s elections, the new lines seem smartly drawn.

What’s next for St. Patrick’s Day?

Every year or two, city officials make major changes to the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Savannah.

There were two big changes in 2014.

State law was changed to allow bars to open on the Sunday before the Monday holiday, and revelers were required to buy wristbands to drink outdoors in an expanded festival zone during the long St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Bands were booked on multiple stages, although wet weather disrupted the schedule.

Almost 80,000 wristbands were sold during the 4-day festival, but more than 45,000 of those were sold on Saturday, with much smaller numbers on Friday, Sunday and Monday.

So what will we do this year, when the parade is on a Tuesday? The big drinking party will probably be on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day, and Monday will be a typical day of work for many downtown businesses.

We need a coherent vision of what we want St. Patrick’s Day to be — one that doesn’t necessitate major policy changes from year to year.

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: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: The Grey a thrilling addition to food scene

Sat, 01/10/2015 - 9:02pm

On your first trip to The Grey, pause outside so you can appreciate the restored glory of the Streamline Moderne architecture of the old Greyhound depot at 109 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.

There are beautiful curves to the exterior wall and to the windows through which Greyhound patrons would have watched the bustle of what was then West Broad Street.

Take a second and feel the Vitrolite glass on the exterior walls and enjoy the view of the diners and drinkers in the beautifully lit bar.

Once you get inside and see the main dining room in the old waiting area, you’ll see all sorts of architectural elements and design nuances that are worth appreciating, including the U-shaped bar that is at the perfect height, the lovely banquettes and the private dining room upstairs, which has a spectacular view into the main space.

A tip of the hat to owner John Morisano for his commitment to the preservation and the rehabilitation of such an important building.

At some point, however, even as you’re still gushing about the interior, you’ll remember that you’re not at The Grey for the beauty alone. You’re there for supper.

I’ve been thrilled with what I’ve tried so far out of Chef Mashama Bailey’s kitchen. Bailey has southern roots but has spent much of her career working with Gabrielle Hamilton at the acclaimed restaurant Prune in New York City’s East Village.

Many of Bailey’s dishes are bold and simple — each of the menu items is described with only a few words — and one gets the sense that her kitchen will spring plenty of surprises in the years ahead.

One of the things I like best about The Grey is that patrons can have a variety of dining experiences. The menu is divided into starters, middles, mains and sides, but you can attack it however you want.

There are also a number of varieties of raw oysters available each night. You have to order a minimum of six, but you can mix and match. If they have the Shigoku oysters when you’re there, they are worth the money. Trust me.

Seats in the front room are first-come, first-served, and there’s a more casual, less expensive menu than in the main dining room, where reservations are highly recommended.

My first visit was during The Grey’s very soft opening. I went by myself and sat at the back bar — my favorite space in the restaurant.

But a friend of mine was there on her own, so we enjoyed our meal together, sharing a number of items.

I’m sure there will be many romantic dinners at The Grey, but the openness of the space means that Savannahians will almost certainly see people they know. There were lots of familiar faces on all of my trips, including some folks who frequented Café Metropole when it occupied the building over a decade ago. On that first visit, we split several dishes — smoked pulled pork served with some scrumptious buns, plus large sides of collards and roasted beets. A couple of people can eat really well at The Grey for about $20 each, before drinks, by sharing smaller plates.

Drinks obviously add to the cost, as they do anywhere. The Grey offers an intriguing list of craft cocktails, has an extensive wine menu and boasts a well-stocked bar.

On my second trip, friends and I snagged a booth in front and discovered that the egg pie and the chicken schnitzel sandwich are flat out fantastic.

For my third visit, a friend and I reserved seats at the bar in the main dining room and tried the main dishes, which are mostly priced $25 and up. The star of that meal was the braised eel entrée, which is served in a large bowl with vegetables such as cabbage and tomato.

My dinner companion immediately described the eel as “Italian comfort food.” We later learned that the dish had been inspired by cuisine in Comacchio, an Italian city south of Venice that even has an annual eel festival.

The co-star of that meal was the seafood boudin starter — something I might order on every visit. I’d love to see Chef Bailey include those New Orleans flavors in other dishes.

As the weather warms up, The Grey will have the option of opening up the space and serving diners outside, where the buses loaded and unloaded passengers. There are plans for oyster roasts, pig roasts and similar events outside, too.

It’s going to be fun to see how The Grey evolves.

 

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

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

CITY TALK: Trends to watch in upcoming city elections

Mon, 01/05/2015 - 10:10pm

So 2015 is an election year for the city of Savannah.

With residents so frustrated by crime and other issues, could we see a sea change at City Hall?

Anything is possible, but not everything is likely.

We don’t seem to do ourselves any favors by having city elections in odd years, but that seems fitting for Savannah.

In the December 2011 runoff against Jeff Felser, Mayor Edna Jackson won a healthy 57 percent of the vote, but turnout was only about 30 percent. Jackson beat Felser by fewer than 3,000 votes.

I frequently hear Savannahians remark that race determines the outcomes in local elections, but that’s overstating the case.

Sure, race is an important factor, but in that same December 2011 runoff, Tom Bordeaux racked up more than 56 percent of the vote for alderman-at-large.

Assuming she runs for re-election, Jackson would be a solid favorite. Many of us have grown increasingly frustrated by city governance, but Jackson remains a likeable, enthusiastic Savannah booster who has forged impressive political connections over many years.

O.C. Welch is apparently weighing a run for mayor, and Murray Silver has already declared. Both have voices that could shake up the campaign, and there is ample time for others to declare their candidacies.

Expect serious challengers in some of the aldermanic races. While it’s difficult to knock off incumbents, we see challengers win seats every couple of cycles.

In 2011, John Hall beat District 4 incumbent Larry Stuber by 18 votes.

The 2015 election could be especially unpredictable because of the new aldermanic map. The district lines have shifted west to reflect the population growth on that side of town.

The new lines are based on the 2010 U.S. Census, but it’s worth noting that some dramatic demographic shifts are ongoing. The new District 2, for example, will likely have a markedly higher percentage of white voters than officials have estimated.

If you’re reading this column, you’ll likely be following

the shifting political winds throughout 2015, but you are in the minority.

Fewer than one-third of Savannah’s registered voters turned out for the general election in November 2011. Three city council members needed fewer than 2,000 votes to win outright.

If any of the challengers can drive turnout in a meaningful way, things might get really interesting.

If she senses a serious challenge in the mayoral race, Jackson could also change the dynamics in a variety of ways by shaking up the city manager’s office or by setting new priorities.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch the drama, at least for those of us who will be paying attention.

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 DawersSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: 2015 looks promising for Broughton St.

Sat, 01/03/2015 - 8:25pm

In a City Talk column almost exactly one year ago, I mentioned the efforts of developer Ben Carter to market a “premier portfolio” of downtown Savannah properties.

Carter’s ambitious efforts made big news throughout 2014, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that Broughton Street has been attracting major national retailers for years.

Some of my first columns almost 15 years ago were about the evolution of Broughton Street with the arrival of Gap and Banana Republic.

Retailers such as Urban Outfitters and Marc Jacobs arrived later, and, more recently, we’ve seen higher-end chains such as Kate Spade and Free People.

J.Crew and Ann Taylor LOFT opened in late 2014.

The recent dynamics have forced several locally owned stores to move or close, but there has been relatively heavy turnover on Broughton Street throughout this century.

That turnover has had many causes, including the toll of the recession, bad investments by some entrepreneurs, rising rents, the increasing importance of tourism and a variety of other factors.

And there will likely be a heavy concentration of locally owned businesses on Broughton Street for the foreseeable future.

Consider some of the locally owned establishments on important corners along Broughton Street, including Levy Jewelers, 24e, Nourish, The Paris Market, The Coffee Fox and Zia Boutique.

Leopold’s Ice Cream routinely has long lines into the street even in the worst weather. Restaurateurs Sean and Ele Tran operate two restaurants — Chive Sea Bar + Lounge and Flying Monk Noodle Bar — right across the street from each other in the first block of East Broughton.

The Salt Table — at 51 Barnard St., just steps off Broughton Street — was chosen by writers and editors at this newspaper as Retail Business of the Year for 2014. (I profiled The Salt Table when it opened in 2011.)

The Small Business Assistance Corp. recently honored Adam Turoni, owner of Chocolat by Adam Turoni at 323 West Broughton St., as Micro Entrepreneur of Year. (City Talk first wrote about Turoni in 2011, when his business launched in Starland.)

Are businesses like these going to be forced to close by some evil out-of-town developer who wants to turn Broughton into Anywhere, U.S.A.?

Clearly not.

But as Broughton Street continues to change, what can we expect it to look like a year from now?

More importantly, what do we want it to look like?

The city of Savannah has not embraced Carter’s suggestions for special taxing districts to fund Broughton Street improvements, but officials do seem serious about redesigning the public spaces.

You can view some of the possibilities at http://savannahga.gov/streetscape.

Since Broughton Street is the Historic District’s most vibrant retail area, I think business owners should be given broader leeway regarding uses along the sidewalk, that the lighting should be more vibrant and that the pedestrian experience should be enhanced as much as possible.

I also wish that planners would consider planting palm trees on some of the blocks to give Broughton a special local flair.

I don’t know if any design changes will be completed by the end of 2015, but we’ll almost certainly see some new stores move into freshly renovated spaces controlled by Ben Carter Enterprises.

In 2015, it’s probable that more tourists will wander onto Broughton Street than in any year in the city’s history.

The likely streetscape changes might remove a few parking spaces from Broughton Street in 2015, and many locals will continue to cite lack of parking as a reason for not shopping downtown.

Of course, on-street spaces can generally be found within a few blocks south of Broughton Street, but some of those spaces are too expensive and timed too tightly to encourage maximum use by locals.

We also need to regain use of the on-street spaces around the federal buildings on Telfair Square. The parking ban for the last 13 years has cost downtown retailers millions of dollars. It would be a huge boon for consumers and for businesses if we could get those spaces back.

In the long run, however, it looks like Broughton Street will rely more and more on shoppers who arrive on foot, by bike and via other types of non-automobile transportation.

I’ve talked to a lot of folks over the past year who cynically shake their heads when they talk about Broughton Street, but I’m genuinely excited to see what new investment comes to the corridor in 2015.

 

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

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

CITY TALK: 2015 local economy looking strong

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 11:23pm

So what are the prospects for the Savannah area economy in 2015?

It looks like there are lots of green lights ahead.

The leading index of the Coastal Empire Economic Monitor published by the Center for Regional Analysis at Armstrong State University shows solid growth into the middle of next year, and I’m betting data for the fourth quarter will indicate growth even deeper into 2015.

The latest employment data are certainly encouraging.

In November, the number of initial claims for unemployment insurance in the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Bryan and Effingham counties) was down sharply from a year earlier.

The number of nonagricultural payroll jobs in the metro area increased by 2.6 percent between November 2013 and November 2014. Private sector payroll employment increased by 2.8 percent.

Still, we continue to see stagnation in manufacturing employment. Construction employment might now be rebounding but remains far below the pre-recession peak.

In other words, we’re seeing strong job growth even with continued weakness in a couple of key sectors.

We still have a long way to go to make up for all the lost ground of the recession, but the metro area unemployment rate fell from 6.7 percent in November 2013 to 6.1 percent in 2014. I am anticipating a faster decline in 2015.

Statewide, we’ve seen strong job growth over the past year, but the improvements have been concentrated in the Atlanta, Augusta, Gainesville and Savannah metro areas. The numbers are still dismal across much of the state, and it’s hard to be optimistic about the economic future of Georgia’s rural areas.

According to Zillow, the median home value in the Savannah metro area has increased 5.8 percent over the past year, but many households are still digging out of the deep hole of the recession. In the city of Savannah, almost 24 percent of mortgage holders still owe more than their homes are worth, but things are headed in the right direction.

There are obviously all sorts of downside risks, but it’s likely that in 2015 we’ll see growth in major sectors, including port traffic, tourism, medical expenditures, housing starts, airport traffic, retail sales and tax revenues.

As the housing market continues to improve across the country and as growing numbers of baby boomers enter retirement, we might also be poised for a new wave of in-migration.

There are definitely some weak spots in the local economy, but there is a lot of room for optimism in 2015.

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: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Can city of Savannah save police merger?

Sat, 12/27/2014 - 9:43pm

When the annual statistics are released next year, 2014 will look like a fairly average year for crime in Savannah.

But it’s been an uglier and more disheartening year than the numbers indicate.

Consider the relentless pace of shootings throughout much of 2014, including the recent ones involving children. Consider the conviction of former chief Willie Lovett on federal corruption charges. Consider the tensions surrounding the shooting of a handcuffed suspect by police.

Consider the refusal of so many witnesses of serious crimes to come forward.

And consider the increasingly likely collapse of the decade-old merger that created the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department.

We certainly have our fair share of police departments around these parts, so what’s one more?

In addition to the SCMPD, there are police departments for Bloomingdale, Garden City, Pooler, Port Wentworth, Thunderbolt and Tybee Island.

Given the decentralized nature of policing across the county, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the unincorporated portions of Chatham County once again had their own police force.

And given the problematic leadership of the SCMPD and the city of Savannah itself, many county residents clearly support the dissolution of the merger. Those residents don’t feel that they are being well served by the combined force, and the city leadership has done little to convince them otherwise.

Alderman Tony Thomas himself blamed the city for the mess in a lengthy post about the “de-merger” last week on his official Facebook page.

“SO NO, I don’t blame the county,” Thomas wrote. “I blame the city and I lump me in there with it.”

We might still see a deal to continue the merger, but city and county officials seem to be speaking different languages.

If Savannah’s leaders — including Mayor Edna Jackson, City Manager Stephanie Cutter and new police Chief Jack Lumpkin — are serious about preserving the merger, they will likely have to give ground on costs, control or services.

City officials might see the county’s proposals as bad policy or as unfair to Savannah residents, but at some point they have to answer a simple question.

Would citizens throughout Chatham County be better served by a combined force under a new agreement or by reverting to two separate departments?

If the merger stays in place, the terms can always be renegotiated again in the future. If the merger is dissolved, decades might pass before there is any new effort at consolidation.

So will city leaders do what’s necessary to preserve the merger?

I’ve often been supportive of city initiatives in this column, but I was appalled by the city’s decision earlier this year to destroy historic homes and displace residents to build a new police precinct. And I was stunned by some of the elements of the proposed alcohol ordinance that city officials spent many months drafting.

Many of my readers were even more upset about other things.

We are witnessing a steady erosion of confidence in the city leadership, and, if the merger unravels, both elected and appointed leaders will suffer additional political damage.

Also, if Chatham County starts organizing its own police force, doesn’t it seem likely that some of the best officers in the SCMPD will join the county department? That will just exacerbate the staffing problems that Lumpkin is already facing.

Maybe Savannah officials will be able to hit the reset button on some of these key issues, but the city’s recent history of bureaucratic insularity doesn’t bode well.

Questions for 2015:

Will we see the local economy grow throughout the next year?

Will local employment continue to make up ground lost in the 2007-2009 recession and throughout the slow recovery?

What will Broughton Street look like a year from now?

What’s next for Hutchinson Island?

With St. Patrick’s Day on a Tuesday in 2015, what should we do differently than last year?

And what is likely to happen in the 2015 elections in the city of Savannah? Will the mayor and aldermen face significant challenges? What issues will define the campaigns?

Over the next couple of weeks, City Talk will be considering – and speculating about – some of these key questions for 2015.

 

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

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

CITY TALK: Liberty Street Grill, Liberty Street Gallery add to street's local flair

Sat, 12/20/2014 - 10:41pm

This newspaper recently spotlighted the surge in locally owned businesses on Liberty Street. Last Wednesday, a friend and I checked out two of the newest entries: Liberty Street Gallery and Liberty Street Grill.

 

That same night, local merchants had banded together for the first Holiday Open House on Liberty Street. The event was announced relatively late and the turnout seemed a little thin, but there is considerable potential for similar gatherings in the future.

 

Meryl Truett’s Liberty Street Gallery had its grand opening on the same night as the Holiday Open House. Located at 128 W. Liberty St., the gallery is nestled beside Salon Della Vita near the corner of Barnard Street.

 

Truett, a photographer who in recent years has been printing her southern landscapes on antique ceiling tiles and other historic materials, is well known in the local arts community, so it was no surprise to see so many artists and arts advocates on hand.

 

Liberty Street Gallery features Truett’s own work and pieces by three other excellent artists.

 

Visitors to the cozy gallery can see richly symbolic paintings by Melinda Borysevicz, owner of The Studio School at 1319 Bull St., and evocative photographs by Tobia Makover.

 

Danielle Hughes Rose’s jewelry, which projects an interesting combination of strength and fragility, is beautifully showcased in an eye-level display.

 

Despite being home to so many artists, Savannah has not had a robust gallery scene in recent years. We simply don’t have enough galleries and enough art buyers to support all of the city’s finest visual artists.

 

So Liberty Street Gallery is certainly a welcome addition.

 

After checking out the grand opening of Liberty Street Gallery, we walked down to Liberty Street Grill, which opened recently at 529 E. Liberty St. in the space most recently occupied by Brasserie 529.

 

The new place is under the same ownership as Brasserie. If you’re interested in the backstory, check out Jesse Blanco’s recent coverage in Do Savannah.

 

The new restaurant’s interior is more casual than but largely similar to Brasserie 529, and Brasserie fans will recognize a few much-loved items on the Liberty Street Gill menu.

 

Despite December being a slow month for many Savannah restaurants, the new restaurant was fairly busy on the night we attended. Service was prompt and friendly.

 

There’s a pleasant simplicity to the menu, which serves a variety of meats and seafood. Only one of the dinner entrees is priced over $20.

 

I had an excellent and filling entrée of grits, shrimp and Andouille sausage ($13), and my dinner companion had a Caesar salad ($9) with a sizable piece of fish added on top (an additional $8).

On my next trip, I’ll likely try the Creole fried chicken with dirty rice ($16). Check out the full menu at http://www.libertystreetgrill.com.

 

Liberty Street Grill also has a nice selection of reasonably priced beers, wines and cocktails.

 

By the way, there was a mistake with one of our orders that was so quickly remedied that we thought nothing of it, but we were nevertheless offered a generous discount on our bill. That’s smart customer service.

 

Liberty Street Grill, which is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, has its own parking lot, and it’s generally easy to find on-street spaces in the immediate vicinity. That gives the new restaurant a big advantage over many other downtown establishments.

 

Of course, the location is also off the beaten path of tourists, so Liberty Street Grill — like Brasserie 529 — will probably rely heavily on locals.

 

Several years ago, the east end of Liberty Street was home to a number of retailers that have since departed, but several key spots are now filled by offices, and we’ve seen an interesting mix of residential and commercial investment in that portion of the Historic District.

 

The new Smith Brothers will open on East Liberty in 2015.

 

I spend a lot of time on foot and on bicycle in the downtown area, but I don’t travel on Liberty Street very often. Last week’s trek reminded me that the street has some exceptionally beautiful homes, trees, gardens and even sidewalks, especially in the blocks east of Abercorn Street.

 

I understand why so many people are reluctant to wander areas like the East Liberty Street corridor at night, but downtown Savannah might be at its most beautiful on those quiet nights.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday ad 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: BiSTopic: City Talk

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 billdawers@comcast.net. 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 http://gabeerjobs.com 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 billdawers@comcast.net. 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 billdawers@comcast.net

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 billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

By: Bill DawersSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

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

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

A new post at People.com 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 billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSImage caption: People.com 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 billdawers@comcast.net. 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 billdawers@comcast.net. 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 billdawers@comcast.net. 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 billdawers@comcast.net. 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 billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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