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CITY TALK: Reasons for Volvo decision might be obvious

Sat, 05/23/2015 - 10:29pm

Since Volvo announced it would build a new manufacturing plant in the Charleston metro area, Savannah area residents have been debating the reasons.

We don’t have precise answers from the automaker about the selection of South Carolina over Georgia for the plum new facility, but it seems to me that much of the social media discussion has missed the mark.

Sure, it’s possible that Volvo executives considered quality-of-life issues like crime and education, but the Savannah and Charleston metro areas are not that different in those areas.

According to statistics compiled by Governing magazine, only 28.4 percent of Savannah metro area residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The Charleston metro area is only slightly better, with 29.8 percent.

According to 2012 data compiled by the FBI, the Charleston metro area had a rate of 422.2 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. The Savannah metro area rate of 327.5 was markedly lower.

And it’s hard to buy the Facebook refrain that governance of the city of Savannah impacted Volvo’s decision. Savannah only has about one-third of the total population of the metro area, and Volvo was considering a site in Bryan County.

Gulfstream’s success suggests that the Savannah area is a perfectly fine place for a major international manufacturer.

But I’m not suggesting that Volvo should have chosen Savannah over Charleston. I’m just suggesting that we don’t have to stretch quite so far to find logical reasons for Volvo’s decision.

On May 11, The Post and Courier in Charleston published “Volvo cites worker training, Port of Charleston in decision to locate in S.C.”

According to that article, South Carolina’s ReadySC program “recruits workers and provides site-specific training through Trident Technical College and other schools. The program tailors its training based on the skills each company’s executives say they need.”

The ReadySC program likely also played a role in Daimler AG’s decision to expand in North Charleston. And it certainly couldn’t have hurt negotiations with Volvo that South Carolina Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt is a former executive at BMW, which has a plant outside Greenville.

The Post and Courier coverage does not emphasize another workforce advantage that the Charleston metro area has over the Savannah metro area.

Charleston simply has a much bigger pool of potential employees.

Over the years, I’ve found that many readers just don’t understand the Charleston metropolitan statistical area has a lot more people than the Savannah metropolitan statistical area.

The Charleston MSA has about 700,000 residents; the Savannah MSA has fewer than 400,000.

And consider that the site of the new plant — Ridgeville, S.C. — is only 85 miles from downtown Columbia, S.C. The Columbia MSA has more than 900,000 residents.

If you drive 85 miles inland from the Bryan County site that Volvo rejected, you’re getting close to Dublin.

The larger labor force in metro Charleston will obviously make it easier for the new Volvo plant to find its initial 2,000 employees.

Also, it seems South Carolina offered a sweeter package of incentives than Georgia did.

According to The Post and Courier, South Carolina’s “incentives package will cost at least $51,000 per job.” That’s assuming full employment of 4,000 in 2030. If the plant doesn’t expand, the package could end up costing the state closer to $100,000 per job.

Georgia offered incentives too, but it sounds like we didn’t match South Carolina’s offer.

Is it right for states to offer private companies such rich incentives? There have to be limits somewhere.

 

And what of the port and other infrastructure?

Both metro areas offer access to major ports, but it’s likely that, in a decade or so, Charleston harbor will be slightly deeper than the Savannah harbor.

In the 2015 legislative session, Georgia finally identified more money for transportation infrastructure, but the extra $1 billion per year will mostly go to deferred maintenance and to projects in metro Atlanta.

I think it’s an open question whether we have both the will and the resources to make the upgrades to I-16 and other roads that a 4,000-employee automobile plant in Bryan County would require.

And none of this is to say that we shouldn’t be pursuing large manufacturers.

We should obviously be trying to lure high-paying jobs, but the scale of the Savannah metro area might turn out to be better suited to a constellation of smaller companies than to individual major employers.

I’ll also add that I’m used to all sorts of blowback whenever I am not back slappingly enthusiastic about every possible form of commercial development. I think that sort of group think has sometimes clouded local objectivity about the Savannah area’s assets and limitations.

 

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: BiS
  • CITY TALK: Reasons for Volvo decision might be obvious
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: ZIA celebrates 10 years with Telfair show

Mon, 05/18/2015 - 9:39pm

With all the talk of national retailers coming to Broughton Street, it’s easy to forget about the thriving, locally owned, entirely independent businesses in the historic shopping corridor.

Well, on Friday night at the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center, Zia Sachedina — owner of ZIA Boutique at 325 W. Broughton St. — reminded everyone about the power of local businesses. In a big way.

The event was technically part of the Jepson’s “Art on Tap” series, which offers craft brews to museum visitors. This time around, that generally low-key gathering had a subtitle: “Zia at the Beach.”

The sold-out fashion show and reception celebrated Sachedina’s 10 years in business and the opening of “Life’s A Beach: Photographs by Martin Par,” which includes whimsical and beautiful images of the hypnotic hold of beaches on communities around the world.

The runway show, which featured more than two dozen models from Halo Models and Talent, came down the Jepson’s grand steps and then did a loop through the Eckburg Atrium. The models were brilliantly adorned in Sachedina’s jewelry and accessories.

In his brief speech before the runway show, Sachedina thanked his family, friends and collaborators. And he also graciously noted the presence of other business owners in the audience and thanked his former employees who now have ventures of their own.

With both Savannah Fashion Week and Savannah’s Fashion Night on hiatus in 2015, “Zia at the Beach” showed that there is still plenty of local interest in events that spotlight local designers and models.

 

 

Forsyth Farmers’ Market picnic a hit, too

On Sunday afternoon, the Forsyth Farmers’ Market hosted its first Farm Picnic.

Intended as both a fundraiser and a community builder, the picnic lured plenty of attendees to become Friends ($30 for individual memberships, $50 for couples) of the market.

Local growers provided the food, and excellent live music came from three local bands — Nightingale News, City Hotel and Waits & Co.

The Farm Picnic was held at the old dairy at the far eastern end of Tennessee and Texas avenues. It’s a beautiful spot that had no trouble accommodating the 300 or so supporters who attended over the course of three hours.

Because of frequent out-of-town trips, I had not been to the Forsyth Farmers’ Market in a while, so I was thrilled to see so many vendors and so many shoppers on Sunday.

With successful events like the Farm Picnic, the market seems poised to expand its impressive outreach and programming.

 

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: Chromatic Dragon serving food, fun on MLK

Sat, 05/16/2015 - 10:39pm

You might one day catch me playing Scrabble, Battleship or even Monopoly at The Chromatic Dragon, but I’m not familiar at all with most of the board games at the new restaurant and bar at 514 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.

I don’t know anything about Catan or Cards Against Humanity — the self-described “party game for horrible people.”

And I definitely don’t know anything about the video games that can be played on large screens throughout The Chromatic Dragon.

But I do know when new businesses make a splash, and The Chromatic Dragon, which has been opened as part of the larger Guild Hall complex, has definitely made a splash.

Local gamers are truly excited about the new gathering spot.

I stopped by on a quiet weekday evening for a sandwich and found The Chromatic Dragon doing fairly brisk business. My $12 cheesesteak was just fine and was accompanied by some excellent, thick-cut fries.

The menu has a nice variety of sandwiches, starters, burgers and heavier entrees, but The Chromatic Dragon’s draw obviously extends far beyond the menu.

Many of you are already familiar with the space that The Chromatic Dragon occupies. It was the former home of Blowin’ Smoke, which moved a number of years ago to the corner of Habersham and 33rd streets.

Other restaurants to occupy 514 MLK include Bub-Ba-Q, Brick House and 514 West.

Despite being located in a gorgeous old building and sporting an awesome patio, the space has proven tough for restaurants. It’s simply too far off the beaten track of tourists, and that portion of MLK feels cut off from much of the rest of downtown because of awkward traffic patterns.

But The Chromatic Dragon has already established itself as a destination, and the new restaurant opens with the Savannah economy firing on all jets — well, most jets.

The Chromatic Dragon should have its liquor license by the time you read this column. The restaurant has also done something that previous occupants should have tried — they’ve knocked out a wall to add a small but comfortable bar to the main dining room.

The Chromatic Dragon is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. There’s off-street parking in the lot just to the north.

 

Traffic calming needed on Whitaker

After my early evening meal at The Chromatic Dragon last Wednesday, I walked home to Thomas Square. I had ridden my bike to the restaurant, but the weather was too perfect not to savor.

Some of the blocks between Montgomery Street and Forsyth Park are overwhelmingly beautiful, especially when lit by the setting sun, and there is little traffic on most streets at that hour on a weeknight.

And then you get to Whitaker Street.

There really wasn’t that much traffic on Whitaker either, but the lack of cars meant that drivers were going even faster than normal. Having spent a bizarrely large amount of my adult life observing traffic, I’d estimate that at least half the cars were going more than 40 mph.

I’ve had a number of readers complain just recently about the high speeds and dangerous pedestrian crossings on Whitaker, but I have little to offer at this point. We all seem to know the dangers are there, so when will we do something about them?

There is a regular refrain that we need to enforce the existing speed limit. Or that we need to lower the speed limit.

But those restrictions will not address the core problem. Whitaker is a wider-than-necessary, two-lane, one-way street, with no stops from Gaston Street to Henry Street. You can enforce the posted speeds all you want, but cars are still going to fly on a street designed like that.

There’s a fairly simple principle that I’ve discussed here and that is widely accepted in planning circles. Design the street for the speed that you want. As currently designed, Whitaker Street invites speeds of well over 40 mph, so don’t be surprised when people drive that fast.

And don’t be surprised one day if there’s a horrible accident involving pedestrians walking across or along Whitaker.

For decades, there has been a bias toward the automobile in city planning. In recent years, that bias has lost its firm grip, but it’s still present in the designs of many urban streets.

Undoing some of the damage will take time and money, but there are some straightforward and inexpensive ways to address problematic streets. It’s disappointing that we in Savannah are dragging our feet on such issues.

 

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: BiS
  • Julia Ritchey/Savannah Morning News- Jacob Heider and Clegg Ivey, co-founders of The Guild Hall, stand in front of their new gaming pub The Chromatic Dragon. The restaurant and bar is scheduled to open May 1 on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Is it time for food trucks in Savannah?

Mon, 05/11/2015 - 9:55pm

The Humane Society for Greater Savannah’s recent Doggie Carnival spotlighted the nascent food truck movement in Savannah.

Despite complex regulations and widespread restrictions on mobile vending, local entrepreneurs are finding a way to make food trucks work.

In Julia Ritchey’s preview of the event here in the Savannah Morning News, a city official notes that Savannah doesn’t have a lot of room for food trucks downtown.

I have two broad responses to the idea that we don’t have the space for food trucks.

First, downtown might seem the most obvious place for food trucks, but they could operate elsewhere, too. They’re trucks, after all. They are mobile.

I could imagine independently owned and operated food trucks setting up occasionally at local universities. Or at major employers like the hospitals or Gulfstream.

As noted in the piece about the Doggie Carnival, food trucks are a natural fit for a variety of festivals. Savannah Stopover had two food trucks next to the Charles H. Morris Center on opening night this year. I recently attended Shaky Knees Music Festival in Atlanta, which had more than a dozen food trucks on the grounds for the weekend.

Second, we should note that Charleston has an active food truck scene. The last time I checked, Charleston’s downtown was a lot tighter than ours.

Yes, Charleston has a more populous metro area than Savannah, but there are close to four dozen food trucks operating there, according to a 2014 list posted by Holy City Sinner.

Charleston has 17 designated spaces for food trucks on public right of way. The city franchises those spots once a year, but they’re available on a first-come basis if the franchisee isn’t there by a designated time.

By the way, I don’t think anyone in Savannah would advocate allowing food trucks to park extremely close to established brick and mortar businesses.

Food trucks in Charleston can also set up on private property.

I first started writing about the food truck movement four years ago. I stated then that food trucks might have a tougher time in Savannah than many realize.
We are a relatively small metro area, after all, and in the aftermath of the recession there were lots of days when the city still felt really slow.

But tourism has picked up since then, which adds more potential customers to the mix, and, more importantly, food trucks have become an expected staple of the culinary landscape in cities that are serious about food.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to create an ordinance similar to the one in Charleston and let the free market take care of the rest.

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

 

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
  • Savannah Morning News file photo The Bean Scene coffee and lemonade cart on Wright Square, shown here in 2005, is the rare mobile food unit allowed under city ordinance. The truck is owned by an existing business owner, Smooth's Susan Jaffie, who has access to a commercial kitchen to prepare food.
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: New Sorry Charlie's comes out of the gate fast in downtown Savannah

Sat, 05/09/2015 - 10:09pm

Sorry Charlie’s Oyster Bar opened recently at 116 West Congress St.

Capitalizing on a superb location, a beautifully renovated space and an excellent menu that has a whole lot more than just oysters, the new restaurant has hit the ground running. Let me say a few things about each of those three points.

Sorry Charlie’s (http://sorrycharliessavannah.com) is on the southwest side of Ellis Square in a space that had been vacant since 2007. Structural issues had to be addressed, a deep recession intervened and there was some legal wrangling too.

The Ellis Square project wasn’t even completed when the previous incarnation of Sorry Charlie’s closed, but things have sure changed since then. Ellis is one of the city’s most active squares, and Sorry Charlie’s might be the most visible business bordering it. Even without the gorgeous sign on Congress Street, Sorry Charlie’s would be hard to miss.

It’s hard to believe that the building was in the shadow of an ugly parking garage just a decade ago.

The interior of Sorry Charlie’s has expansive windows facing north, south and west. The original materials – the brick walls, the wood ceiling and floor – speak to the history of the building and of that portion of downtown. The kitchen is easily visible through an archway behind the long bar.

Check out the Sorry Charlie’s Facebook page for some wonderful photos taken during the extensive renovations. It’s quite a space.

Immediately after opening, Sorry Charlie’s became a hangout for locals, but it’s hard to know if it will continue to fill that niche as more tourists discover it.

Patrons can choose a variety of seating options. On my first trip, I intended to snag a spot and dine alone at the bar, but I ended up joining friends at a high table facing the square. Lots of other patrons seemed to be running into friends too.

The menu provides lots of choices beyond the fresh oysters.

If you’re looking for an $11 po boy or a $30-plus entrée, Sorry Charlie’s has it. The menu boasts some rich items inspired by traditional southern cooking – fried chicken and waffles, Lowcountry boil, pimento cheese served with cornbread in a skillet, even boiled peanuts.

Sorry Charlie’s only served dinner the first couple of weeks, but recently began opening at 11 a.m.

After years of slow recovery from the recession, Savannah’s dining scene has turned a corner over the last year or so. And that’s a good thing, especially if the trend toward culinary tourism continues as predicted in a recent study prepared for Visit Savannah. (I wrote a column about that study a few weeks ago.)

 

Hall Street site for sale again

So the city of Savannah is once again trying to sell the large Hall Street lot that was originally purchased for the new cultural arts center, which is now slated for the southeast corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Oglethorpe Avenue.

I loved the decision in 2007 to put the arts center at Hall and MLK. It would have brought activity through the day and evening to a rather desolate stretch. That activity likely would have spurred other investment.

The site was eventually nixed because it was deemed too small to accommodate the parking needed for the arts center, but city officials have a poor track record in recent years of estimating how much land will be required by major projects.

Last year, a development group signed a contract to buy the Hall Street site from the city. Plans were in the works for a mix of uses, including some affordable housing.

In a previous column, I had wondered if those plans were ambitious enough. After all, the Hall Street site is in the Landmark Historic District and is just south of an area of active investment. It’s a great site for quite dense residential development, with some commercial spaces facing both Montgomery Street and MLK.

But that’s not the only option for large lots like the one on Hall Street.

It’s not going to be long before hoteliers start looking hard at sites south of Gaston Street. I’m among those who would much rather see the neighborhood repopulated by year-round residents than by visitors.

 

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: BiS
  • New Sorry Charlie's comes out of the gate fast in downtown Savannah
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Paddy O’Shea’s now open on MLK

Mon, 05/04/2015 - 11:10pm

 

Paddy O’Shea’s, a new restaurant and bar at 125 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., held its grand opening last weekend.

Paddy O’Shea’s joins a sort of “restaurant row” between Broughton Street and Oglethorpe Avenue across from the courthouse complex. Going from north to south, there’s The Grey, Wasabi’s, Carlito’s Mexican Bar & Grill and now Paddy O’Shea’s.

Utrecht Art Supplies at 111 MLK Blvd. closed recently, so it’s possible we could see a fifth restaurant on that stretch.

A friend and I checked out Paddy O’Shea’s a couple of weeks ago on an absurdly rainy Saturday night. Despite the storm outside, we found the restaurant comfortable and relaxing.

The first thing a patron notices is the sheer size of the space. The old commercial buildings on that stretch of MLK have narrow storefronts facing the boulevard, but they’re really deep.

So Paddy O’Shea’s has room for perhaps the longest bar in the Historic District. There are tables down the middle too, plus a long row of booths on the opposite wall.

The stage is all the way in the back, and I’m glad to report that Paddy O’Shea’s has been booking some excellent bands in its short existence. The Steppin Stones, a supremely talented Southern rock trio from Hilton Head, was playing the night we dropped by.

We had two appetizers, a sandwich and four alcoholic drinks, and the bill came to a mere $45. We especially enjoyed the pimento cheese dip appetizer, which was really satisfying, and the Rueben, which had especially tender corned beef.

The menu also includes a variety of dishes one might expect from a place named Paddy O’Shea’s, such as bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie and fish and chips. There’s also a nice selection of other pub food and regional dishes.

Paddy O’Shea’s has a lot of televisions. If you’re a sports fan trying to keep up with the NHL and NBA playoffs at the same time, and following baseball too, you’ll be in heaven.

The Savannah College of Art and Design’s dorm complex is nearby, and there are more hotels planned for blocks both north and south of MLK’s restaurant row.

However, as I’ve noted before, the poor design of the courthouse complex cuts that portion of MLK off from the Montgomery Street corridor. There are some straightforward ways to encourage connectivity, so let’s hope that straightforward fixes will be implemented in the upcoming phases of courthouse renovations.

With all this development on the west side of MLK and with increased vehicular traffic on the corridor, especially at night, we need to make the crosswalks safer 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 DawersSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Spring is here; so are delays on Hwy. 80

Sat, 05/02/2015 - 10:42pm

I’d love to see a good estimate of the economic activity lost because of stopped and slowed traffic on the road to Tybee.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, traffic incidents resulted in gridlock going to and from the island.

That was in April, for goodness sake — nowhere near high summer. Fortunately, I have seen no reports of serious injuries in those accidents or whatever the incidents were.

Consider the economic impact of those long backups on that quiet spring Sunday.

Drivers burned far more gas than normal. They lost time, too, and much of that time would have been spent engaging in economic activity.

Certainly, many of the visitors on the way to Tybee were planning to spend money when they got there — on food, drink, parking and myriad other items. Some drivers simply turned around, so they didn’t end up buying anything.

With phones and new technologies, travelers can now see whether U.S. 80 is backed up even before they leave home. How many folks who had been planning a Tybee trip on that Sunday simply decided not to go?

And at what point will infrequent Tybee visitors simply quit trying to get to the island at all? And how many Tybee residents have canceled trips to the mainland? The economic implications are far-reaching, but we rightly hear even more complaints about safety issues — about the dangers of the congested road and of potential delays for emergency vehicles.

After this most recent Sunday of gridlock, Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman and lots of other folks took to social media to call for government action.

Years ago, it seemed likely that we’d eventually have a four-lane road all the way from Johnny Mercer Boulevard to Butler Avenue, but the high cost was not justified by the amount of traffic through most of the year.

Perhaps it’s also worth noting the credible arguments that a four-lane road would be counter-productive because it would invite higher speeds and encourage more summer day-trippers than Tybee’s limited parking can accommodate.

Everyone seems to agree, however, that the bridges need to be replaced. Too often, the accidents, injuries and delays occur on or near those bridges, which don’t have safe shoulders.

On busy days, the passing lanes between the bridges also seem problematic; drivers speed up when they get the extra lane, but then have to slow – sometimes dramatically — at the merge points close to the bridges.

According to the “US 80 Bridges Replacement Study” prepared for the Metropolitan Planning Commission in 2010, the Bull River Bridge has a sufficiency rating of 61 out of 100. The Lazaretto Creek Bridge has a sufficiency rating of 42.45.

In 2012, the Coastal Region Metropolitan Planning Organization presented credible designs for new bridges and for other improvements. For example, a new Bull River Bridge would have 12-foot travel lanes, 10-foot shoulders and a 10-foot multi-use path that would connect with the McQueen’s Island Trail.

The 2012 price for the improved roadway: $62 million.

I think that expenditure is acceptable simply for reasons of public safety, but one could argue that a significant amount of that money would be recouped through increased economic activity.

On the other hand, that’s $62 million to improve access to an island with a year-round population of about 3,000. There are fewer than 400,000 residents in the entire metro area.

Voters in the coastal region had a chance to mandate the bridge replacements in the 2012 TSPLOST vote, which would have instituted a 1 percent sales tax for transportation purposes. Here in Chatham County, voters opposed the tax increase by a resounding 57 percent to 43 percent.

The state of Georgia is about to enshrine a massive tax increase — about $1 billion per year — for transportation, but there is little reason to think that improvements to U.S. 80 will be prioritized. The vast majority of that additional money will go to deferred maintenance and to projects in metro Atlanta.

Despite the legitimate safety concerns about U.S. 80, many Savannah area residents don’t routinely drive to Tybee. They have other transportation priorities.

At the end of the day, those who want a safer, easier trip to Tybee will almost certainly have to support other spending that they wouldn’t prioritize. There will be trade-offs and compromises. That’s the reality of politics.

So how valuable are those better bridges to those who want them most? Valuable enough to support a local tax increase for transportation? Valuable enough to accept that taxpayers in other parts of the county have other priorities?

 

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: BiS
  • CITY TALK: Spring is here; so are delays on Hwy. 80
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Savannah's hiring surge continues

Mon, 04/27/2015 - 9:23pm

In recent years, I’ve been paying really close attention in this column to the local and state unemployment statistics.

During the early years of the recovery from the recent recession, which officially ended almost five years ago, we saw weak employment growth across the country. The employment rebound in Georgia was especially anemic.

We are still seeing an uneven recovery across Georgia, but employment here in the Savannah metro area has been strong for many months.

And that continued in March.

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, there were 852 initial claims for unemployment insurance in the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) last month. That was down dramatically from 1,261 in March 2014.

The number of payroll jobs in Georgia was 3.1 percent higher in March 2015 than in March 2014. Private sector employment actually increased 3.5 percent.

Metro Savannah employment increased a whopping 4.9 percent over the past year – and 5.7 percent for the private sector.

As I’ve noted before, we won’t continue to see such dramatic year-to-year gains. Eventually the job growth numbers will track more closely with population growth.

The hospitality sector has continued to show strong job growth, but other areas are doing well too, including manufacturing, construction, trade, transportation and business services.

It’s certainly good news to see such broad-based gains.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in March was 6.3 percent. That’s down from 7.3 percent in March 2014.

Savannah metro area unemployment was 5.8 percent in March, considerably lower than the state rate and significantly lower than the 7.4 percent rate in March 2015. (Metro area unemployment estimates are not adjusted for seasonality, but March is a pretty average month.)

The only cautionary note that I see in the most recent data is a relatively small increase in the size of the civilian labor force.

The household survey, which is used to determine the unemployment rate and other labor force estimates, can be noisy from month to month, so the increase of about 0.5 percent in the size of the labor force might just be a statistical blip. Still, I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

As I’ve noted here before, employment continues to lag in many of Georgia’s lightly populated areas. The unemployment rate is 7 percent or higher in 69 of the state’s 159 counties.

Consider Screven County, which is just up the road a piece. The unemployment rate in March was 8.2 percent, down dramatically from 10.3 percent in March 2014.

But the decline in Screven County’s unemployment rate was entirely attributable to a shrinking labor force. That’s a tough trend to reverse, especially when so many of the state’s metro areas are thriving.

 

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: Trends for our next generation of tourists

Sat, 04/25/2015 - 10:36pm
The Savannah Tourism Futures Study, which was unveiled recently at a meeting at the International Trade and Convention Center, considered Savannah’s relationship to 12 tourism trends.   As noted in coverage by business reporter Julia Ritchey, the report was produced by Ernst & Young and MMGY Global for Visit Savannah, the destination marketing arm of the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce.   The study said Savannah should prioritize five of those 12 trends as we think about the tourists of the future.   Let’s take a look at those five areas.    The appeal of authenticity, food and technology According to the study, tourists are increasingly seeking “engaging and authentic trips.”   The concept of authenticity in tourism has been studied extensively by academics, who don’t even agree on the meaning of the word.    I last wrote about authenticity in columns regarding black history in Savannah. Do “average” tourists really want to hear about slavery in the South, or are they happy to experience a metaphorical whitewashing of history?    Do tourists really want to immerse themselves in the local culture, or are they content to go to places that have been manufactured specifically for them — sites that are “touristy”?   The study noted that Savannah already has a “moderate” alignment with the trend toward authenticity and engagement. We have the “largest Historic District in the U.S.” and can boast “authenticity in landmarks, culture and arts.” At the same time, many locals would not use the word “authentic” to describe some of our major tourist destinations. Many of us direct visitors off the most beaten paths of tourists.   The study also suggested that, moving forward, culinary tourism should be a top priority.   The report’s recommendations included enhancing the Savannah Food and Wine Festival and farmers’ markets. I’ll add that better public policy is crucial to furthering culinary tourism.    The city of Savannah needs to streamline restaurant permitting and to embrace newer concepts, especially food trucks. At the state level, elected officials need to build on the very modest gains of the “Georgia Beer Jobs Bill” and reconsider other regulatory burdens.   I don’t know whether Savannah will ever match Charleston as a destination for foodies, but prospects are brighter all the time.    “Increasing integration of technology and services” was also identified as a priority in the tourism futures study.    The recent presentation specifically mentioned the demand for digital visitors’ guides and mobile coupons. The study noted that we lag in important areas, including public wi-fi, navigation and history education.    The report suggested only a moderate level of effort would be required to address these deficits, but I’m afraid that appropriate steps would require a level of public/private coordination that we aren’t capable of right now. Still, worthy goals.   On landmarks and purpose Two other top priorities were identified: “leveraging influential landmarks” and “traveling with a purpose.” In my mind, those two areas are closely related.    I have always thought Savannah’s most appealing qualities for residents are also appealing qualities for tourists. I’m thinking especially about beauty, history, tradition and authenticity.    The Oglethorpe Plan itself epitomizes these qualities, but so do many individual sites in the Historic District, including the Owens-Thomas House, Green-Meldrim House, Beach Institute, Telfair Academy and lots more.    Sites outside the Landmark Historic District — like Bonaventure Cemetery and Fort Pulaski — also fit into these categories.    Our signature events also align to some degree with those categories. Our St. Patrick’s Day celebrations feel entirely authentic, even as the add-on festival days do not.    The Savannah Music Festival may bring contemporary, even cutting-edge, artists from all over the world, but the music explores traditional genres, including those with roots in the South, and the performances take place in historic venues.   Savannah vs. Charleston, redux  The tourism study suggested that we could do a better job of clarifying “ideas and imagery associated with the destination (particularly versus Charleston).”   Savannah is greener than Charleston, with more expansive and welcoming public spaces. Those qualities are obvious in Visit Savannah’s excellent social media accounts. (Visit Savannah has more than 156,000 fans on Facebook and more than 16,000 followers on Instagram.)   We have some other advantages over Charleston too. Savannah is more fun than Charleston, less fussy. We have a younger, edgier, more DIY spirit too. We have plenty of tradition, but Savannah is a place of innovation too and always has been.    City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401. By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
  • Photo by Beau Kester/ Round 1 Productions- A segway tour in Savannah’s Historic District. A new tourism futures study suggests ways to capitalize on Savannah’s assets to ensure sustainable growth.
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Bull Street corridor south of Forsyth Park continues to boom

Mon, 04/20/2015 - 10:16pm

Early Saturday afternoon, I wandered down Bull Street to Graveface Records & Curiosities at 5 W. 40th St. for Record Store Day.

Graveface took a different approach to crowd control this year. The number of shoppers inside was capped pretty low, and a doorman waved in new customers only as others left. So I had a few minutes to wait outside but then had an easy time browsing.

Among the gems I bought was “Furious Hoops Vol. 1,” a new vinyl compilation from Savannah-based label Furious Hooves. The new album was featured last week under the category “Oddities” in Rolling Stone magazine’s guide to Record Store Day.

It was no surprise to run into Furious Hooves co-founder Ryan McArdle at the store, and it certainly wasn’t a surprise to run into Ryan Graveface, who owns both the record store and the Graveface Records label.

After shopping, I decided to get a bite to eat and was literally frozen for a few moments by indecision. I was standing next to Back in the Day Bakery, which was packed, and I realized that I had about 10 good lunch options within comfortable walking distance.

So I stood for a few moments and enjoyed the buzz of activity.

There are multiple new businesses about which I haven’t written along that stretch of Bull between 37th Street and Victory Drive. And there is ongoing renovation in multiple commercial spaces stretching north to Forsyth Park.

Just to the east in the Thomas Square neighborhood, infill residential projects are welcoming new residents, and there are several new commercial projects in the works too.

This is what the local economic boom looks like in some neighborhoods that are on the fringes of the greater downtown area.

Many of the new investors in the area are probably unaware that their projects might not have been possible if the city of Savannah had not adopted the historic Mid-City Rezoning in 2005.

The zoning overhaul, which was developed by the Metropolitan Planning Commission in close consultation with various stakeholders, allowed for commonsense development in keeping with the neighborhood’s mixed-use fabric.

The 10-year-old ordinance has pre-empted countless battles about parking requirements, setbacks and uses — arguments that can needlessly delay quality development that respects historical patterns.

Some of us thought this type of resurgence was going to happen several years ago, but marginal neighborhoods were hit hard by the 2007-09 recession and the slow recovery in the years immediately after that so-called “Great Recession.”

But it looks like the Bull Street corridor between Forsyth Park and Victory Drive has arrived at a tipping point. The positive momentum seems impossible to stop, even when the next recession inevitably hits.

 

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

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CITY TALK: Savannah location of CO now open on Whitaker Street

Sat, 04/18/2015 - 10:31pm

On a quiet evening last week, a friend and I checked out CO, the new Asian fusion restaurant at 10 Whitaker St., between Bay and Bryan streets.

And I’m sure we’ll be going back.

CO also has locations in Charleston and Myrtle Beach — other southern cities that rely heavily on tourism. That corporate experience probably bodes well for the Savannah location. Information about all three locations can be found at http://eatatco.com.

The interior is simple and sleek, which gives a contemporary edge to the historic space. There are a variety of seating options in the narrow, ground-floor dining room, including a counter that faces the kitchen, a well-designed bar and communal tables down the center.

We opted for cushioned seats in the window facing Whitaker.

CO’s menu is not particularly extensive, but there is enough variety that diners can mix, match and share items in endless ways. The price points — small plates are generally priced under $8 and larger dishes under $15 — encourage sharing and experimentation.

We weren’t looking for a meatless meal, but it was nice to see the menu clearly mark the vegetarian items such as edamame dumplings and tofu buns. The latter were especially good — the rich, sweet pastry was a perfect complement to the tofu and crispy vegetables in the middle.

For an entrée, I opted for an excellent Thai curry that was a little spicier than I expected. My dinner companion had the tuna ceviche salad, which also combined fresh flavors in pleasing ways but could have used a few more greens.

On my next trip, I’ll likely try some of the other items — maybe one of the noodle soups, maybe the sushi.

CO offers a variety of fresh-tasting signature cocktails and a limited but interesting selection of beer, wine and sake, so don’t be surprised if you end up spending more on drinks than on the reasonably priced food.

The upstairs space will open later this spring as a lounge, Cocktail Co. Note that the lounge and restaurant have separate Facebook pages — Cocktail Co. and CO Savannah – both of which have already attracted strong followings.

CO was not open for lunch during its first week, but lunch should be available by the time you’re reading this.

 

Rethinking the north end of Whitaker Street

Several restaurants have come and gone from 10 Whitaker St. The stately old commercial building that now houses CO is in the heart of the busiest portion of the Historic District, but the location is still tricky.

From our window seat the other night, we had time to ponder the narrow sidewalks and the ridiculously wide travels lanes of Whitaker Street.

There are few cars along that stretch, especially in the evening, and some drivers hit the gas when they see the wide open road ahead.

Other drivers move slowly as they ponder whether they want to turn into the Whitaker Street parking garage. If you wait long enough, you will inevitably see — as we did — a car turn left out of the garage and go the wrong way up Whitaker.

Meanwhile, clusters of pedestrians, including a significant number of tourists, are struggling to stay on the narrow sidewalks and seem in danger of getting hit by speeders or by drivers carelessly turning out of the garage.

We would do ourselves and our visitors a favor if we moved ahead with some of the straightforward modifications that have been proposed over the years for the northern portion of Whitaker Street.

We could add a lot of beauty to Whitaker and considerable value to the properties along it if we just made some commonsense and relatively inexpensive changes to the street’s design.

I’d probably opt to reduce Whitaker to one lane of vehicular traffic north of Broughton Street, but key goals could be achieved even if we simply reduced the width of the two lanes. The narrower travel lanes would still accommodate large volumes of traffic, and we could also have wider sidewalks and even room for café tables.

As I’ve noted in this column before, there has been a lot of talk lately about enhancing the experiences of visitors. One of the most obvious ways to do that is to make sidewalks and streets safer for those on foot.

 

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

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  • CITY TALK: Savannah location of CO now open on Whitaker Street
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Declining wristband sales point to flawed policies

Mon, 04/13/2015 - 10:30pm

I began my recent column about Georgia’s regressive new hotel tax with a basic maxim: “If you increase the cost of a product, consumers will buy less of it.”

Let me add a corollary: “If you add bureaucratic barriers to purchasing a product, consumers will buy less of it.”

Years ago, we lost sight of basic principles such as these in the management of the St. Patrick’s Day festival. Consider the saga of declining sales of wristbands that allow outdoor drinking in the festival zone — something that’s free every other day of the year.

In 2001, the wristband requirement was confined to River Street, where 84,800 were sold in two days.

In 2013, the St. Patrick’s Day festival was also two days, but wristbands were required throughout a much larger zone that included not only River Street, but also City Market, Bay Street and much of Broughton Street. According to an article by Lesley Conn, 79,238 wristbands were sold in those two days.

As noted last week in an article in this newspaper by Eric Curl, 79,573 were sold during a four-day festival in 2014 that included some wet weather. We had a four-day festival in 2015 that featured awesome weather, but wristband sales fell to 70,518.

Those quoted in last week’s article seemed surprised by the decline, but they shouldn’t be.

Wristband requirements and other restrictions are barriers to festival attendance, especially for folks who are only marginally attached to the idea of becoming part of the drunken throng.

Who will pay the $5, and maybe even a whole lot more, not just on one day, but on each of the four festival days? The folks who really want to be part of that drunken throng.

The city of Savannah gets $1 from each wristband sold. The Waterfront Association, City Market and Downtown Business Association split the rest of the money. Leaders of those groups have occasionally suggested that wristband revenue merely covers festival costs, but they have also said the revenue supports unrelated events.

That contradiction is bad for public relations.

No, we wouldn’t have so many stages with so many bands without the wristband revenue, but the evidence suggests the additional public entertainment is not really such a big draw after all.

About 56 percent of 2015 wristband sales were on Saturday, with far lower numbers on the other three days. What happens next year, when St. Patrick’s Day is on a Thursday?

Here’s my guess what will happen. Festival planners will continue to rationalize away the bad data and wait ‘till the festival is mere weeks away before adding another layer of bureaucracy to it.

And then they’ll be surprised, again, that wristband sales fell. Again.

 

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

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CITY TALK: Plenty of downtown parking in Savannah, just not where you want it

Sat, 04/11/2015 - 10:40pm

If you are among those who routinely argue there’s no parking downtown, you’re wrong.

On the final Friday night of the Savannah Music Festival, there were hundreds of folks at the Lucas Theatre for “Stringband Spectacular” and more than a thousand a couple of hours later for Dianne Reeves at Trustees Theater.

In addition to the SMF attendees, downtown was crawling with shoppers, tourists and diners.

Some of those people had arrived in the heart of downtown on foot or on bicycle, but most had parked their cars somewhere. Thousands of people still made it on time to their shows or to their dinner reservations.

We might eventually need additional garage parking, but we sure don’t seem to be in the midst of a crisis right now.

Last Wednesday at 3 p.m., I was driving into the heart of the Historic District on Wheaton Street, which turns into Liberty Street.

After crossing East Broad Street, I saw dozens of available on-street parking spaces on East Liberty. There were fewer empty spaces as I neared Bull Street, but there were ample open spots immediately west of Whitaker Street.

A few minutes later, I counted more than 75 available on-street parking spaces in the Barnard Street corridor between Oglethorpe Avenue and Gaston Street.

This was an ordinary business day. During tourist season. With SCAD in full session.

“But, wait,” some will argue, “I’m not parking way out on Liberty Street if I’m going to Broughton Street.”

Why not? It’s about a third of a mile between Liberty and Broughton, and the walk is one of the most beautiful you’ll find anywhere.

When people complain about the lack of parking in the greater downtown area, they are typically complaining about specific problems.

Almost 100 percent of the time, I can park on the street right in front of my house even though I am just two short blocks from SCAD’s Arnold Hall. One block closer to the school, however, residential parking conditions were so nightmarish that special policies had to be implemented.

Drivers can find ample on-street parking on Barnard Street south of Oglethorpe Avenue on pretty much any weekday, but then they discover the time limit on most meters is insufficient. So drivers might see lots of empty spaces, but the options are still unsatisfactory.

 

Take the survey

The story of parking in Savannah is also a story of misplaced expectations on the part of many drivers.

Downtown visitors who only come during high-profile public events will almost certainly struggle to find parking. Those infrequent visitors seem to waste a lot of time searching for on-street parking in areas where they are unlikely to find any — like around Johnson and Ellis squares — rather than simply going to where the spaces are.

The CORE MPO, through the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission, and the city of Savannah are in the midst of creating a strategic plan for parking and mobility called Parking Matters.

There is a survey on the city’s website (http://savannahga.gov/index.aspx?NID=1697), but many respondents will be frustrated by the questions because they do not capture the subtle and specific parking problems that we face.

Also, the study area extends south to 37th Street and west to Boundary Street. The parking conditions vary so much from neighborhood to neighborhood that it’s impossible to generalize.

Still, the questions should produce some useful data, so I’d suggest giving the survey a whirl.

And there’s a community open house about downtown parking from 4 to 7 p.m. April 14 at the Coastal Georgia Center, 305 Fahm Street.

 

Finding a balance

I’ve written about downtown parking in dozens of City Talk columns, and I find myself returning to a couple of key themes — ones that some readers find contradictory.

We need to do everything possible to maximize the use of on-street parking spaces. It’s absurd that the spaces on Barnard Street, for example, are so poorly utilized on weekdays. That’s an issue of pricing, timing and marketing.

It’s also absurd that the federal government continues to restrict parking around office buildings near Telfair Square. Those security measures were taken after 9/11, and they’ve cost area merchants millions of dollars in lost business.

Not only do on-street spaces make nearby properties more valuable, they also provide a safety buffer between sidewalks and lanes of traffic. Yes, we speeded up Bay Street traffic when we removed on-street spaces many years ago, but we hurt businesses on the strip and created perilous conditions with pedestrians just a few feet away from fast-moving cars.

As we’re trying to maximize the availability of on-street spaces, we can also try to maximize downtown accessibility for those on bikes, on foot and on transit. The two policies are not mutually exclusive.

There are trade-offs here and there, like taking a parking space and installing parking for multiple bicycles. Or creating a dedicated bicycle lane instead of a lane of parking.

At the end of the day, it’s a question of maximizing quality of life for residents and maximizing economic vitality for businesses. And it’s a question of finding the right balance when competing interests cannot be reconciled.

 

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

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CITY TALK: More venues would benefit music festival, other events

Mon, 04/06/2015 - 9:26pm

In his introduction to the Savannah Music Festival’s finale with the Ukrainian band Dakhabrakha, executive and creative director Rob Gibson noted the sheer quality of the Ships of the Sea Museum’s North Garden as a venue for live music.

The outdoor space at Ships of the Sea is occasionally plagued by crowd noise from chatty patrons who congregate in the back, but the audience was downright reverential during Dakhabrakha and during Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors’ fantastic show on the SMF’s penultimate night.

Gibson also mentioned the fact that the space would likely host more performances if it weren’t in such high demand for weddings. He could have said the same about the Charles H. Morris Center.

It’s certainly no knock on the Morris Center and the Ships of the Sea that they are such attractive wedding venues, but the demand creates problems for music programmers.

The SMF took full advantage of the Ships of the Sea and the Morris Center this year. The festival also used a variety of other historic spaces, especially the Lucas Theatre for the Arts, Trustees Theater and Trinity United Methodist Church.

Really, it’s hard to imagine a better group of venues — or is it?

Interestingly, the Savannah Music Festival did not utilize Johnny Mercer Theatre in 2015. I know the Mercer has its defenders, but I’m among those who find the theatre unremarkable, especially when compared to the smaller but superior Lucas and Trustees. It would be wonderful if the city had a better large venue, but that won’t be happening anytime soon.

The SMF and other organizations could also use a greater diversity of smaller spaces.

In theory, the city’s long-planned cultural arts center will include a state-of-the-art 500-seat theater, but questions still linger about what we will end up with.

The SMF, Savannah Stopover, Savannah Jazz Festival and other groups could also benefit from a type of space that we don’t have right now. We need a room with a capacity of 500 or so that can comfortably accommodate both sitters and standers .

Most of our competitor cities in the Southeast have a venue like that.

Of course, those competing cities also have ordinances that allow patrons under 21 to attend shows even when alcohol is being sold. If the city moves ahead with a less restrictive alcohol ordinance, we could see the private sector invest in larger and more flexible venues.

The SMF and other organizations could also utilize the planned performance space on the hill at Trustees Garden. What a gem that could turn out to be.

While we have some excellent performance venues already, we could see even better ones down the road.

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

 

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CITY TALK: New hotel tax: How bad will it be for Savannah?

Sat, 04/04/2015 - 10:29pm

If you increase the cost of a product, consumers will buy less of it.

Maybe we could find exceptions to that maxim in the luxury market or in sales of patented medicines, but higher prices typically mean lower sales.

How much will hotel room sales be hurt by the new $5 nightly tax, which was added at the last minute to the transportation funding bill passed last week by the Georgia legislature?

I had been following the progress of House Bill 170 pretty closely, and I don’t recall anyone even mentioning the possibility of taxing hotel rooms. Tourism officials and hotel owners have every right to feel blindsided.

While no one knows the full ramifications of the additional $5 per night, it seems clear that there will be negative impacts.

Michael Owens, president of the Tourism Leadership Council, correctly noted that the new tax will hurt Savannah’s chances in the competition for large conventions. If a convention needs 500 rooms for three nights, the additional taxes would add up to $7,500.

Would that be enough to make event planners choose a different state? Where is the tipping point?

The same problem applies to various tour groups. If you own a company that runs overnight bus tours and are forced to increase package prices by $5 each day, how many sales will you lose? What else will you cut from the trip to keep the price the same?

Last week, I priced a hypothetical two night stay at the Hyatt on the riverfront for an upcoming weekend in April. The room rate was $319 per night, for a total of $638.

But then here come the additional charges: $44.66 in state taxes, $38.28 in occupancy taxes and a $2 occupancy fee. So the total cost would be $722.94. If HB 170 becomes law, another $10 would be added, making the final total $732.94.

At what point will tourists feel the pinch? At what point will they consciously or unconsciously cut back on other spending while they are in town? At what level of taxation will visitors begin to feel exploited rather than welcomed?

As Bill Hubbard, president and CEO of the Savannah Chamber, noted in an article last week by Julia Ritchey, the $5 flat fee has a disproportionate effect on less expensive hotels.

The added cost might seem negligible to someone willing to spend $300 a night for a prime location during high season, but consider the impact at much cheaper hotels.

As of press time, one could book a two-night stay on the last weekend of April at America’s Best Value Inn on Ogeechee Road for a total of $146.90. That includes a daily rate of $65 and $16.90 in taxes and fees.

What’s the impact on consumers when $10 more is added to the final bill and the price breakdown for the room includes $130 in room charges and $26.90 in taxes and fees?

Given the rhetoric from state leaders, the traffic congestion in metro Atlanta and the fact that Georgia has underfunded transportation for many years, it seems certain that Gov. Deal

will sign this new bill into law.

So we will get a better sense of the impact beginning July 1.

By the way, I have long believed that we need to be spending more money on transportation infrastructure, including transit. That was why I publicly supported the T-SPLOST a couple of years ago.

Yes, the additional 1 percent sales tax of T-SPLOST would have increased the cost of consumer goods and therefore would have hurt sales to a small degree, but we would have known that the local revenue would fund local projects, like the construction of safer bridges on the road to Tybee.

Under this transportation bill, we’ll see an added tax on the local tourist industry, higher gas prices and additional burdens on local governments (more on that in an upcoming column), but we have no guarantee how much of the new revenue will be spent on identified regional needs.

As I’ve noted before, this transportation funding bill is really all about metro Atlanta. If Atlanta area residents had passed their regional T-SPLOST in 2012, we wouldn’t need a bill with such onerous provisions.

Ironically, if we ever do want to prioritize regional projects, we will likely have to revisit the regional T-SPLOST or a similar funding scheme.

 

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

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CITY TALK: Courthouse complex presents long-range issue

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 10:12pm

Over the years, I’ve written many columns about the role of public policy in good urban planning and design.

But it’s been awhile since I’ve written about the problems created by the Chatham County courthouse parking garage on Broughton Street between Montgomery Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Most of the time, I just try to ignore the south side of that block, but one can only shield oneself from that mass of ugliness for so long.

If the courthouse garage had been built more recently, we might have been able to lobby for something with a much better design. There could be a row of small retail shops along Broughton, with the parking behind and above.

If the south side of Broughton between Montgomery and MLK were as active as the north side of the block, we’d see a real synergy between businesses. That block should and could be just as vibrant as the blocks immediately east.

A more vibrant final block of Broughton Street becomes even more important as investment, especially hotel construction, continues along the MLK corridor.

But the poor design of the Chatham County courthouse complex doesn’t just impact Broughton Street. The closed streets between Montgomery and MLK hurt neighborhood connectivity and contribute to traffic snarls, and the complex’s design impedes Oglethorpe Avenue development too.

We’ll eventually see Savannah’s new cultural arts center near the southeast corner of Oglethorpe and MLK, so we can hope that building will beautify and energize the key corridors nearby.

An attractive new public building on the south side of Oglethorpe would certainly be an improvement over the ugly parking lots there now, but what could we ever do about the old jail on the north side of the avenue?

Oglethorpe Avenue is a key gateway to the city, and that role has been heightened in recent years by the development west of MLK.

But consider the experience of a tourist who pulls into town and checks into a hotel west of MLK. Those tourists’ first impressions of the city are formed as they cross the threatening crosswalks on MLK and then are faced with the unkempt, forbidding jail building.

There are no easy fixes here. Undoing the damage of the courthouse complex’s poor design would be expensive and protracted.

But if we want to rebuild the urban fabric of the western portion of the Historic District, we will eventually have to think big.

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

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CITY TALK: With the demolition of Savannah's Meldrim Row, other problems will become evident

Sat, 03/28/2015 - 8:20pm
The Meldrim Row cottage apartments are being demolished for the new central Savannah-Chatham police precinct. Eric Curl/Savannah Morning News

One evening last week, I stopped by to see the status of the demolition of several dozen homes in Meldrim Row.

The cottages were modest, but they were rich in history. That history has been discussed in considerable detail in this newspaper in recent months, so I won’t try to recap it here.

On the night I was there, all of the homes on the north side of 34th Street between Montgomery Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard had been demolished although the land had not been entirely cleared. There were large piles of broken wood siding and some even larger piles of beautiful old bricks.

Near the middle of the block, one solid chimney was still standing, surrounded by rubble. The sheer weight of that chimney spoke volumes.

There was some pretty fine homebuilding in the decades after the Civil War.

If I were a different type of columnist, I would try to conjure the image of an African American laborer in the late 1800s telling his children about his liberation from slavery, but I will leave such stories to the poets.

I’ve seen numerous comments in recent months about the deplorable condition of the cottages that are being demolished, but such comments have generally come from those who arrived late to the debate.

Demolition by neglect began as soon as the city of Savannah expressed interest in the property many months ago. Before the sale was finalized, the doomed homes were being cannibalized for materials for repairs on the Meldrim Row cottages west of MLK.

For weeks before and after the city closed the deal, many of the vacant homes were unsecured and at the mercy of the elements and vagrants.

Those who saw nothing but slums overlooked the solid rooflines and the sound 19th century construction.

Preservationists can claim a small victory in the decision to save an especially impressive two-story home at the southeast corner of MLK and West 34th Street.

Of course, it’s worth noting the preservation of that home is forcing city staffers to change the conceptual plan for the new Central Precinct. That one home was in a row that would have been replaced by a reconfigured 34th Street.

Saving that home could result in closing 34th Street, which would be bad news for neighborhood connectivity, especially since 33rd Street is already slated for closure.

Planners could decide to leave 34th Street open for public use, but that would be a tacit admission that the precinct never required 1.6 contiguous acres in the first place.

However the site is eventually configured, the demolition of the cottages will make a few things clear.

First, it will be obvious even to a casual observer just how large the Meldrim Row site is. The current Central Precinct building is clearly inadequate, but the existing structure and its off-street parking occupy less than half an acre. The new site will be four to five times larger.

I live next door to the current precinct, and the parking lot is nowhere near full for many hours each day. The building is dark most of the night, the front door locked.

Now that all or most of the cottages have been demolished, it will also be easier to see the blighted blocks both north and south of Meldrim Row. Those blocks are dotted with vacant lots and empty buildings, most of which have no historical significance.

At some point in the construction of the new precinct, someone in a position of power is also going to realize that the MLK streetscape will soon require costly modification.

The new precinct has been touted as a boon to public safety in the Cuyler-Brownsville neighborhood, which lies west of MLK, but a cruiser would have to drive several blocks out of the way just to get across the street. For blocks at a time, there isn’t even a safe spot for a pedestrian to get from one side of the boulevard to the other.

And, within a decade, I’m betting that something else will be obvious.

The Metropolitan neighborhood is rapidly changing — many would say gentrifying — and the city’s decision to destroy inexpensive housing is only going to speed that process along.

 

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: Bull Street intersections hazardous

Mon, 03/23/2015 - 9:59pm

In a recent City Talk, I discussed some of the ways in which the design of public spaces dictates their uses, including unintended ones.

At the end of that column, I noted the nearly constant conflicts between cars and pedestrians at major Bull Street intersections that don’t have traffic signals. At both Liberty Street and Oglethorpe Avenue, the streetscape encourages pedestrians to keep moving north and south and also encourages automobile drivers to keep moving east and west.

Let me share an anecdote of an experience a few days ago.

I was riding my bike north on Bull and was waiting at the stop sign at the intersection of Liberty Street. There was a line of cars backed up at the light at Drayton Street, so it was obvious the oncoming Liberty Street traffic should be slowing down. I had plenty of time to cross one lane of traffic.

But the moment I made a move to cross the intersection, an eastbound sedan speeded up, despite the fact that there were parked cars no more than 40 yards ahead.

Once I made it halfway across Liberty and was waiting at the next stop sign, a westbound driver on Liberty stopped for no other reason than to allow me to cross.

This is not an isolated incident. Such confusion goes on all day. Regular walkers and bike riders know to expect the unexpected from east-west traffic on Liberty Street and Oglethorpe Avenue, but visitors don’t.

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about the importance of public safety to tourism and about enhancing the experiences of tourists. Maybe we need to go after the low-hanging fruit first and make these intersections safer.

Savannah Music Festival off and running

For personal reasons, I couldn’t attend as much of the opening weekend of the Savannah Music Festival as I hoped, but I saw enough to be reminded of a few things:

The SMF continues to have stellar production values. I don’t know if a concert at Trustees Theater has ever sounded better than Dawes did on Sunday night.

The festival plays a vital community role. For 17 days each year, local supporters saturate the Historic District, and in the process they re-engage with others who care about the city and support downtown businesses at the same time.

The SMF is also a dream for tourists such as a couple with whom I chatted on Sunday. They had booked a Savannah vacation without even knowing about the festival — and they couldn’t believe their good luck in finding tickets available for a number of shows.

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: Construction, manufacturing jobs on rebound

Sat, 03/21/2015 - 10:09pm
In a recent column, I took a close look at January’s payroll employment estimates for the Savannah metro area, which includes Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties. Those estimates showed robust growth over the past year, and the newly released data for February show strong growth is continuing into 2015.   Employment in Georgia grew by 3.8 percent between February 2014 and February 2015. Growth in the private sector was even stronger at 4.3 percent.   Payroll job growth over the past year in the Savannah metro area outpaced the state as a whole. We saw 4.9 percent job growth between February 2014 and February 2015. The private sector added jobs at a 5.7 percent rate.   As I’ve noted here before, economic recoveries in recent decades have included steady increases in public employment, but the ongoing recovery from the deep 2007-09 recession has come in the face of cuts and stagnation for many public sector jobs.   The extremely strong employment growth rates are dramatically higher than the rate of population growth. We won’t see numbers like these forever, but we are definitely making up for some of the ground lost in the recession.   And, yes, we are still trying to escape the shadow of that protracted recession and slow recovery. Last week’s announcement on the closure of J.T. Turner Construction was a sad reminder of lingering woes. (Note that a separate company, J.T. Turner Construction Co. of Savannah Inc., will continue to operate, according to a statement.)   Two sectors I have been eyeing closely have shown particularly robust growth over the past year. Year over year, local construction employment increased by 10.7 percent, and manufacturing employment by 5.1 percent.   The broad category of professional and business services grew by 10.3 percent over the past year.   Leisure and hospitality continued to add jobs faster than any other local sector, however, with a 10.8 percent increase from February 2014 to February 2015. Almost 25,000 local residents work in leisure and hospitality.    Statewide, 10.6 percent of payroll jobs are in leisure and hospitality. In Savannah, that number is 14.7 percent.    All of the estimates cited so far are based on the ongoing survey of payroll establishments.   The unemployment rate is estimated through a separate survey of households. Many working people, including the self-employed and domestic workers, do not show up in the counts of payroll jobs. The estimates from the establishment survey are considered more reliable from month to month than the much noisier numbers from the household survey, but all the data tell us something. The Georgia Department of Labor recently released the January workforce estimates for the state and for various political subdivisions. The Savannah metro area had a 6.4 percent unemployment rate in January 2015, down from 7.4 percent in January 2014.    January is typically a weak month for employment, and the metro area estimates are not adjusted for normal seasonal trends, so we could see the local unemployment rate fall below 6 percent later this spring. The Savannah metro area’s unemployment rate in January was just below the unadjusted state rate of 6.5 percent.   The unemployment rate fell in the Savannah metro area because the number of people reporting themselves as working outpaced the growth of the local labor force. The size of the workforce increased by 2,851 over the past year to 171,914 in January 2015. Over the same period, the number of employed persons increased by 4,368.   These are robust numbers. Really robust.   Unemployment rates are improving across the state, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the numbers remain dire in some Georgia counties, especially in lightly populated areas in the southern half of the state.   Fifty-six of Georgia’s 159 counties had unemployment rates of more than 8 percent in January 2015. In 20 of those counties, the unemployment rate was more than 9 percent.  The ongoing struggles of rural hospitals and rural school systems do not bode well for those areas.    We have not yet seen the final version of the bill that would increase transportation funding in the state, but some of the provisions will likely hurt rural areas, where residents have no choice but to drive long distances and where major road projects are not warranted.    But things are looking pretty good here at home.   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: Local, regional visitors dominate St. Patrick's crowds

Mon, 03/16/2015 - 10:13pm
CITY TALK: Local, regional visitors dominate St. Patrick's crowds

On the morning of March 16, I did some quick searching for Savannah hotels with availability for that night — the night before St. Patrick’s Day.

About 15 Historic District hotels turned up with available rooms in my quick search, and there were literally dozens more with vacancies throughout Chatham County, including in the clusters near the airport, near the intersection of Ga. 204 and Interstate 95, on the Southside and at Tybee.

That was just a quick search, and I pretty quickly located a couple of other downtown hotels with availability that didn’t show up at first. If I really had been coming into town for the Monday night party and today’s parade, I could have booked downtown for under $150 for the night.

On March 13, I did a similar search for available rooms from March 14 to March 16, which included a Saturday night. Again, about a dozen downtown hotels with vacancies showed up in a quick search, with dozens more in the area able to accommodate a last-minute traveler.

In 2014, my cousin and her husband randomly were heading north on I-95 and decided to visit on March 15, not aware of the mania on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day. They tried to book a hotel that afternoon but balked at the downtown prices. Instead, they found a cheaper room near the airport with no problem.

All that said, I’m sure that hoteliers have made a killing over the last few days. Many guests booked long ago at rates far higher than those available at the last minute.

This column is not a knock on the local hotels, by the way. I’m simply suggesting that a lot of prevailing assumptions about St. Patrick’s Day just aren’t so. The hotels aren’t “packed,” and you’ll never see River Street looking as crowded as it was during St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the 1990s.

Downtown streets were crowded on Saturday night, for sure, so crowded that the police advised the public not to drive downtown at all.

But it’s worth keeping in mind that the vast majority of partiers and holiday drivers are from the Savannah area, not out-of-towners booking for the full weekend.

There’s nothing wrong with that — not at all. In fact, it’s great to have a spring holiday that is so focused on local traditions.

Of course, it’s worth asking a follow-up question. If the holiday is focused so much on local traditions, why do so many locals avoid downtown? And why do so many local businesses close?

But let’s worry about questions like those another time. Enjoy the parade, and enjoy your safe celebrations after it.

 

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