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CITY TALK: New uses could replace arena, improve downtown

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 9:35pm

In a recent column, I noted that the construction of a new arena gives Savannah an unprecedented opportunity to recreate lost portions of the Oglethorpe Plan on the west side of the Historic District.

I am in favor of the total demolition of the existing arena and for the re-establishment of as many blocks as possible, including Perry and McDonough streets from Barnard Street all the way to Montgomery Street.

But there are a number of sensible plans that would stop short of maximum re-establishment of Gen. Oglethorpe’s famed grid.

For example, we could seek a private developer who would utilize the footprint and some of the infrastructure of the existing arena.

The arena floor is below street level, so that space could be converted to a large underground parking lot.

Some of the infrastructure above the parking lot could be repurposed for multiple uses that could improve quality of life for downtown residents and enhance the experiences of Savannah’s visitors.

Do we need another downtown grocery? That could take over the ground level space above the level of underground parking.

Then how about more commercial development on top of that? Perhaps a multiplex?

The Lucas Theatre, Trustees Theater and a few other venues occasionally host film screenings, but I’m talking here about a multi-screen cinema that shows newly released films, including some foreign and independent ones.

Where would filmgoers park? Many patrons would arrive on foot or on bicycle, but drivers could use the underground parking and also use the city’s Liberty Street Garage on weekends and at night.

So we could still develop the existing Civic Center parking lot for private, taxpaying uses and re-establish Jefferson Street between Liberty and Hull streets.

And we could also re-establish the blocks of Perry and McDonough streets between Barnard and Jefferson streets. So we would once again have the traditional boundaries of the trust lots on the west side of Orleans Square, which would give us a tremendous chance to expand the rich architectural fabric around Savannah’s squares.

By the way, it seems like there are other opportunities for multiplexes on the fringes of downtown, but we might need to make it an economic development priority if we’re serious about having one.

There are surely other types of private development that could repurpose some of the arena’s existing infrastructure, but it’s hard to imagine any public uses that would be worth pursuing on such a valuable piece of land.

I’ll touch upon some other options for the site of the existing arena in future columns.

 

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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSLead photo: Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: New 'general store' offers local, regional products

Sat, 06/27/2015 - 10:23pm

PW SHORT General Store opened a couple of months ago at 414 Whitaker St. That’s at the corner of Taylor Street in the heart of the Downtown Design District.

As we wandered through the shop recently, proprietor Scot Hinson described it as “a regional, food-forward general store.”

So PW SHORT has items for gardening, cooking, dining, entertaining and just about anything food-related. Most of the products are locally or regionally sourced, although there are a variety of exceptions for unique and well-designed items.

The store is also generally “eco-minded,” according to Hinson.

The small rooms at PW SHORT are filled with dozens of items — portable gas stoves, bamboo fiber bowls, lovely cutting boards made from olive wood, an interesting collection of barware, garden tools, canning supplies and on and on.

PW SHORT, which is named for Hinson’s late grandfather, even sells push lawnmowers and compost bins.

The store also stocks products distributed by culinary historian and author John Martin Taylor, including a user-friendly oyster knife and the stone-ground grits from Taylor’s Hoppin’ John’s label.

Some of you will surely remember Taylor from the original Hoppin’ John’s — the culinary bookstore that he opened in Charleston almost 30 years ago. Hinson even worked for Taylor in Charleston in 1987.

Taylor is also known for his influential cookbooks that have deepened our understanding of southern cuisine, including “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking,” “The New Southern Cook,” Hoppin’ John’s Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah: Dining at Home in the Lowcountry” and “The Fearless Frying Cookbook.”

A 2012 Washington Post profile called Taylor a “low-country cooking icon.”

Taylor’s titles can be found at PW SHORT alongside a variety of other cookbooks, including ones by Libbie Summers, Steven Satterfield and Hugh Acheson.

Hinson is a board member of the Forsyth Farmers’ Market, so it’s no surprise that PW SHORT stocks a variety of foods – like sorghum from Canewater Farm in Darien – routinely sold by vendors at the Saturday market.

The store also carries a variety of products from Verdant Kitchen, which is based at Lebanon Plantation.

For many years, Hinson has collected and sold mid-century modern furnishings, some of which are also available in the new shop.

Hinson noted that he has been getting a steady stream of tourist traffic, in large measure because of the proximity of Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room.

“The locals are starting to find me,” he added.

Over a decade ago, I started writing columns about chefs, restaurant owners and other entrepreneurs who are both embracing and reinterpreting the best traditions of southern cooking. The opening of PW SHORT General Store fits in neatly with those trends.

The Downtown Design District hasn’t gotten as much attention over the last year or so as commercial corridors like Broughton Street and Starland, but the DDD is certainly alive and well.

If you’re driving to the Downtown Design District, you can generally find plenty of metered on-street parking west of Whitaker Street and south of Liberty Street. As I’ve noted here before, the high level of availability suggests the meters are timed too short or priced too high – or both.

Retailers in the district would see more business if those spaces were more attractive to local shoppers.'

 

Airport traffic continues rebound

There were just over 100,000 enplanements at the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in May. That’s a number we haven’t seen in seven years.

We hit 100,000 enplanements in May 2008, but airport business declined sharply as the recession’s grip tightened.

If you’ve been flying regularly, you’ve probably noticed the increased traffic in and out of Savannah. Fortunately, we seem to have plenty of capacity – parking, gates and other infrastructure – to handle substantial increases.

And, at least in my experience, the increased business at the airport has not resulted in significantly longer waits at security or other major inconveniences.

While it’s great to see traffic return to pre-recession levels, it’s nevertheless worth noting that the airport had over 100,000 monthly enplanements three times in 2005.

With tourism booming and with the regional population steadily increasing, we will probably see steady growth for the foreseeable future in airplane ridership into and out of Savannah, but it’s a fickle business.

 

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
  • https://www.facebook.com/pages/P-W-Short
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Latest employment data mostly solid

Mon, 06/22/2015 - 9:36pm

The payroll job estimates released last week by the Georgia Department of Labor showed a predictable seasonal decline in Savannah area employment in May, but the data are still generally strong.

Between May 2014 and May 2015, private employment in the Savannah area grew by a vigorous 3.8 percent.

We would need to see key numbers decline beyond midsummer before we’d have real cause for worry about a local slowdown.

The generally good local news continues to be tempered by less than thrilling statewide news.

The latest numbers show solid statewide job gains, but there continue to be weak pockets across Georgia.

Also, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 6.3 percent in May was lower than only eight states and the District of Columbia.

Georgia’s unemployment rate was down considerably from the 7.3 percent rate in May 2014, but we seem to have plateaued. The state rate has ranged from 6.2 percent to 6.4 percent through the first five months of 2015.

The unemployment rate for the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) has been somewhat lower than the statewide rate, and there’s every reason to think that trend will continue.

But continued economic weakness in some corners of the state seem likely to have impacts across Georgia, especially since we are on the verge of implementing significant tax increases to fund transportation infrastructure.

 

New photo exhibit at Bull Street Library

On a recent Monday evening, dozens of folks showed up at the TREE Loft exhibit space on the third floor of the Bull Street Library for the opening of “Saltwata: Portraits from the Sea Islands” by photographer Ann Sosbe.

Sosbe is an excellent photographer of people, but the lovely portraits in this exhibition are scenes from the barrier islands — trees, seascapes, old buildings, birds.

This is the third exhibit in the top-floor gallery at the stately old Bull Street Library. The space was formerly used for periodicals, but it works beautifully as a gallery. There is ample room for about 50 of Sosbe’s photos.

I don’t know if the library will start staying open late each month so that the TREE Loft can be part of the First Friday Art March, but the new gallery is a nice addition to that resurgent stretch of Bull Street.

Sosbe’s exhibit is being held in conjunction with other summer programs sponsored by the Live Oak Public Libraries, including the reading of Pat Conroy’s “The Water is Wide” as part of Coastal Empire Reads, an online summer book club.

 

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: Dancing Dogs Yoga opens on Savannah's Broughton Street

Sat, 06/20/2015 - 10:27pm

On a recent Friday evening, Dancing Dogs Yoga Savannah (http://www.dancingdogsyoga.com) hosted a grand opening party in the new studio on the second floor of 18 East Broughton St.

Founded by Savannahian Shelley Lowther, Dancing Dog Yoga now has four locations. In addition to the new studio in Savannah, DDY can be found in Bluffton, Augusta and Greensboro.

About midway through the party, Lowther warmly welcomed guests and thanked those who had contributed to the lovely new studio. The whole evening became a kind of celebration of local small businesses.

The North Beach Grill provided tremendous food for the event, and Peter Mavrogeorgis of Dollhouse Productions was the DJ.

Lowther is a certified teacher of Baptiste Yoga, and Dancing Dogs Yoga Savannah lists 16 other instructors on its website. Some classes begin as early as 6 a.m. and some as late as 8:30 p.m.

Dancing Dogs Yoga also offers teacher training and certification. And, if you’re a newbie to yoga, the website features a handy FAQ and a page about etiquette that address even the most basic questions.

The retail store Broughton Exchange is on the ground floor of 18 East Broughton St., and Lowther lives in the spacious apartment on the third floor above the studio. So the building follows sound urban design principles for shopping districts like Broughton Street: retail on the ground level, a specialty service on the second floor and residential on the third floor.

Broughton Exchange has been open for a while, but I just checked out the store for the first time on the evening of the opening of Dancing Dog Yoga Savannah.

Broughton Exchange specializes in work by local designers, and you can read a bit about each of them beside their collections, which are beautifully merchandised.

We’ve written in this space before about the independent designers who have made Savannah home, and Broughton Exchange provides a much-needed outlet for sales and for visibility.

Broughton Exchange began as a pop-up shop during the 2014 holiday season, but, with Abbie May Hastings running the day-to-day operations, the boutique has established a permanent presence on the strip.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that the first block of East Broughton Street is dominated by locally owned businesses. In addition to Broughton Exchange and Dancing Dogs Yoga, that block is home to the locally owned businesses 24e, Levy Jewelers, Kayak Kafe, Aroy-Jung Sushi Bar, Civvies, Globe Shoe Co. and The Mirage, among others.

The folks who see Broughton Street filling up with nothing but new chains aren’t looking very hard.

 

Starland featured in NYT

In 2007, The New York Times’ “36 Hours” column mentioned “the up-and-coming area called Starland.” In 2014, the neighborhood along the Bull Street corridor north of Victory Drive was featured in the NYT’s “An Incubator for Creativity in Savannah, Ga.”

Last week, The New York Times had an even more thorough article about Starland: “In Savannah, Where Change Is Slow, an Art District Is Catching On.” This latest NYT piece was in the commercial real estate section.

Savannah’s Rhett Mouchet spoke intelligently in the piece about the changing commercial landscape of the downtown area.

Here’s the reporter’s paraphrase of part of Mouchet’s remarks: “The Savannah historic district’s lack of office space, parking and reasonably priced retail space has begun pushing some smaller businesses to other locations, and retail rents in Starland can be less than half the roughly $20 to $35 a square foot typically sought in the historic district.”

The NYT piece even detailed the early vision for Starland formulated by Greg Jacobs and John Deaderick. I talked about some of that history in my City Talk coverage of the new Starlandia Art Supply just a few weeks ago.

The New York-based owners of the grand but dilapidated Starland dairy told the Times they plan to open a market specializing in locally sourced food, but I’ve learned over the years of writing this column not to get too excited about ambitious plans that are still on the drawing board.

Still, that old dairy is an awesome building, and it seems likely to find a new use in the next few years.

Let me also add that it’s hard to overstate the importance of the rezoning of the neighborhood over a decade ago. The new zoning ordinance, which was dramatically simpler and more flexible than the former zoning, built upon Thomas Square’s history as a relatively dense, mixed-use neighborhood that welcomed small businesses.

 

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
  • Dancing Dogs Yoga Savannah http://www.dancingdogsyoga.com
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: A few thoughts on Savannah's evolving restaurant scene

Mon, 06/15/2015 - 10:12pm

The new issue of Food & Wine magazine hits the newsstands on June 19.

The magazine includes restaurant editor Kate Krader’s picks for Restaurants of the Year. These are “the most exceptional openings of the past year — places that astonished her with their energy, originality and style.”

Among the five honored establishments is The Grey, the newish restaurant in the old Greyhound bus station at 109 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The Grey is joined on the list by new restaurants in Minneapolis, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In other words, Savannah is keeping company with four of the largest metro areas in the country on Food & Wine’s list.

This is yet another step in the Savannah restaurant scene’s quiet revolution, which, in my estimation, has been going on throughout this century.

We’ve been seeing an increased focus on fresh and local ingredients. We’ve been seeing chefs and restaurateurs with more daring menus and concepts. We’ve especially been seeing attempts to build upon the best qualities of traditional southern cooking.

Savannah can certainly boast wonderful restaurants that have been around for decades, but consider the huge number of restaurants that have opened in the 21st century in the greater downtown area, including 45 Bistro, Back in the Day Bakery, B. Matthew’s Eatery, Leoci’s Trattoria, Circa 1875, Local 11 Ten, Green Truck Pub, Butterhead Greens Café, Flying Monk Noodle Bar and on and on.

I know I spend more money on eating out than most people, but in the last week or so I’ve had a Saturday lunch in The Yard at The Grey, had dinner at the bar at The Florence, enjoyed lunch at the Henry Street location of Sandfly BBQ, dined late at Betty Bombers inside the American Legion Post 135, had breakfast at The Sentient Bean and also dined at 22 Square inside the Andaz hotel — 22 Square might be the best restaurant that isn’t already on your radar.

What an extraordinary list of restaurants — and I biked or walked to all of them.

I’m often critical of the downtown economy’s over-reliance on tourism, but tourists certainly buoy our burgeoning restaurant scene, and culinary tourism is a growing trend. A new generation of residents is also encouraging restaurateurs to push the envelope.

The best part of this story is that there are more good things on the way — from restaurants about to open to ones that exist only in the imaginations of their future owners.

The recognition from Food & Wine is certainly a big deal for The Grey, but it’s also another boost for our entire restaurant scene.

 

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's The Grey named one of the Top 5 restaurants in America
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: New hotel near Drayton Tower deserves bolder design

Sat, 06/13/2015 - 10:29pm

When I moved to Savannah in 1995, I did not appreciate Drayton Tower’s presence in the downtown architectural landscape. I was very much in the “that doesn’t fit in” camp.

But the old building grew on me, especially after I started visiting friends in the small apartments, some of which had grand views of the city.

By the time I was writing this column, I especially appreciated the economic vibrancy spawned by those 188 apartments, and I grew to appreciate the achievements of the modern architects of the mid-20th century who didn’t want the city to be a slave to its past.

We have some remarkable mid-century modern buildings in Savannah. Those structures have gotten much more attention in recent years, but they deserve even more.

As the real estate bubble was inflating, Drayton Tower seemed primed for condo conversions, but the efforts were not a success. As recently as a few years ago, Drayton Tower was in pretty sorry shape. Some windows were gone, the exterior was grimy and the building was largely unoccupied.

Some local cynics — and we seem to have more than our fair share around here, huh? — were convinced the 1951 building was beyond repair. Another sign of a fading city.

Enter Flank Inc., who paid just $3.8 million for the building. Flank converted Drayton Tower into relatively pricey apartments and buffed up the exterior.

A few weeks ago, Flank announced plans for a hotel on the parking lots just north of the iconic apartment building.

I’m sure the hotel will be a huge hit. A brand new hotel with 21st century amenities right smack in the middle of the Historic District? That has success written all over it.

But wouldn’t another relatively dense apartment building be even better for the city?

Yes, it would. The proliferation of hotels has been tipping the balance of the downtown economy.

The increasing economic reliance on tourism is impacting everything from decisions by small business owners to public policy. If we want to change the dynamic, we need to incentivize high density residential construction and disincentivize hotel construction in historic neighborhoods.

None of this is a knock against Flank, by the way. I admire the work the company has done with Drayton Tower, and I have no doubt the planned hotel will be extremely popular with tourists and other overnight visitors.

Designs for the proposed Perry Lane Hotel were presented recently to Savannah City Council. Flank’s presentation included images of several projects around the country — bold, beautiful buildings of different styles and vintages.

By contrast, the digital renderings of The Perry Lane Hotel suggest an attempt not to offend.

The hotel will consist of two buildings separated by Perry Street. The complex is bounded by Drayton Street, McDonough Street, Floyd Street and Perry Lane.

There will be one large level of underground parking, which will obviously entail the closure of Perry Street during construction, but that’s not a big deal in the long run.

The planned buildings will have six stories, but the top floor is partially recessed, so from the sidewalk, the buildings will appear to be about 60 feet tall — markedly shorter than Drayton Tower and the lovely old DeRenne apartment building.

So far so good. The plans respect Savannah’s famed street grid, provide for underground parking and will eliminate off-street surface parking, which is a poor use of space in an urban setting.

The plans also suggest a good understanding of the need for street-level vibrancy. A restaurant and bar in the north building will have windows facing Perry, Drayton and McDonough streets. Let’s hope there will be entrances to the restaurant that don’t force patrons to go through the hotel lobby.

A coffee bar is slated for the corner of Perry and Floyd streets.

But the overall effect, at least in the drawings shown to City Council, is fairly plain. The guest room windows seem designed to de-emphasize the height of the buildings, and the yellowish color of the exterior seems like an odd choice.

There is nothing in the design to suggest architectural kinship with Drayton Tower, which will look even more daring and bold with a nondescript hotel next door.

Yes, there would likely be resistance if Flank planned a more striking building for the site, but the fight would almost certainly be worth it.

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
  • Courtesy Hansen Archtiects, P.C.- An artist’s rendering of the proposed hotel on Perry Street.
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Employment numbers show strong local growth

Mon, 06/08/2015 - 9:55pm

In April, there were 717 initial claims for unemployment insurance in the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties), down substantially from 906 claims in April 2014.

That’s a big decline, and it is yet more evidence that the regional economy seems to be in steady growth mode.

According to the most recent estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor, nonfarm employment in the state in April was up 3 percent from a year earlier, which is considerably faster than the rate of population growth.

Savannah metro area employment improved even more quickly, with 4.6 percent growth between April 2014 and April 2015. Private sector employment grew a whopping 5.6 percent.

Several months ago, we had speculated that construction employment had bottomed and might be rebounding. According to these latest estimates, the construction sector added about 400 jobs over the last year — a solid 7 percent increase.

The manufacturing sector added 800 jobs between April 2014 and April 2015 — a 5.1 percent increase.

The leisure and hospitality sector added 1,400 jobs in the same time period — a 5.7 percent increase.

Even more jobs were added in the broad category of professional and business services. The sector added 3,400 jobs over the past year for a 17.9 percent annual increase.

These are impressive, broad-based gains, but don’t expect such vigorous numbers indefinitely. It’s simply impossible for a metro area to continue adding jobs at a rate that’s approximately three times the rate of population growth.

And the U.S. economy will eventually experience another recession. Since World War II, we have had a recession every 6 to 7 years, on average. The so-called “great recession” ended in early 2009. You do the math.

The April unemployment rate for the Savannah metro area was 5.5 percent, down from 6.5 percent a year ago.

Keep in mind that the unemployment rate and other labor force characteristics are determined by a different survey than the one used to estimate payroll employment. But both surveys show strong job growth and a growing labor force in Savannah.

All of Georgia’s metro areas saw year-over-year declines in the unemployment rate in April, but several also saw a decline in the number of workers in the labor force, including Albany, Columbus, Hinesville, Macon, Rome and Warner Robins.

By contrast, the size of the Savannah metro area labor force increased by an estimated 1.8 percent between April 2014 and April 2015. Again, that’s faster than the pace of population growth.

I continue to be worried about the soft economies in many parts of the state, especially rural areas of south and middle Georgia, but so far the Savannah area seems to be capable of thriving even as other areas struggle.

 

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: Restoring Oglethorpe plan should be part of arena project

Sat, 06/06/2015 - 9:22pm

The city of Savannah recently hired the consulting firm Barrett Sports Group to study various issues related to our long-planned new arena.

According to a City Council agenda, Barrett will “collect, analyze, understand and compare information necessary to make critical decisions related to the arena and existing Civic Center sites. This study will determine the function, size and program for a new arena that will serve the city and the surrounding communities.”

There has been some criticism of the $176,000 cost of the study, but the new arena is a huge project — certainly among the most expensive and most ambitious initiatives the city has undertaken in recent decades.

How big should our new arena be? How much parking will it require? How many overnight visitors are likely to attend events? How many new visitors will the new arena likely attract? What technical specifications will make the structure viable for most of the rest of the century?

It seems like we need some expert help on questions like those. I wonder, however, if the consulting team should be charged with studying the existing Civic Center site.

Before I start going into detail about a few issues, I should note that a new arena is many years away. Based on our recent experiences with the proposed cultural arts center, we might not have a new arena for more than a decade, even though the funding will be available long before that.

The decision to build a new arena just west of downtown was made well over a decade ago. Land acquisition was underway by 2004, and the westside location was widely known when voters overwhelmingly approved the continuation of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in 2006.

City officials threw those plans into turmoil, however, by saying that the site would not be big enough (even though there is ample space) and by inviting public debate about potential sites. At one point during the brief tenure of former city manager Rochelle Small-Toney, it seemed likely the new arena would be built off I-95 somewhere.

Given the contentiousness of those debates, I’m expecting a whole new round of public complaint about the chosen site, which has always seemed excellent to me. It’s an easily accessible spot in the no man’s land between West Boundary Street and Stiles Avenue.

Over time, however, the debate will shift back to the future of the current arena site.

There have been occasional rumblings about repurposing the current arena for some other public use, but that would make little logical sense. Even if we need yet another major public project, why would we use the current Civic Center site?

After all, our arena sits on some of the most valuable land in the region. We need to get that property back on the tax rolls, and private development will certainly stimulate more economic activity than a public use.

But here’s where things get tricky. If we just sell the existing arena site to the highest bidder, we might end up with another major hotel complex in the heart of the Historic District.

As I’ve argued before, I love tourists and think that we could accommodate many more than we currently do, but the proliferation of hotels in the heart of downtown over the past decade has degraded the residential character of the Historic District.

Of course, there are many other types of private development beyond hotels that would be suitable for the current arena site. I’ll discuss some of those in an upcoming column.

But first things first.

No matter what happens, we should insist on the restoration of the historic connectivity that was disrupted decades ago by the construction of the Civic Center.

The Oglethorpe Plan isn’t just a remarkable remnant of history. Oglethorpe’s vision for a ward system with a street grid and public squares provides a template for the future.

Even if the Johnny Mercer Theatre remains, the destruction of the arena would allow the reopening of Perry and McDonough streets between Barnard and Montgomery streets. Perry Lane could also be reestablished.

We might not be able to restore Elbert Square completely, but we could make some headway.

Jefferson Street could also be re-established between Liberty Street and Oglethorpe Avenue. Montgomery Street can be changed back into a two-way street, although we could do that any time.

By the way, I can only chuckle at those who think I hate cars or want to disrupt traffic. I want cars to go at safe speeds in residential areas, and I have consistently opposed excess road capacity, but I’m all about connectivity.

We can make downtown more economically vibrant if we concentrate on maximizing choices for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

Right now, drivers in the northwest quadrant of the Historic District have their options severely and unnecessarily limited by the restrictive traffic patterns around the Civic Center.

So as the consultants consider the site of the current Civic Center, here’s hoping they recognize the history and the continued relevance of Savannah’s original street grid.

 

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: Volvo decision comes into sharper focus

Mon, 06/01/2015 - 8:16pm

In a recent column, I speculated that Volvo had straightforward, fairly obvious reasons for choosing to build a new manufacturing facility in metro Charleston rather than in metro Savannah.

In the last few days, we’ve gotten a little more news about that decision, which seemed to have surprised many folks in Savannah.

At an event in Charleston on Thursday, Volvo exec Lars Wrebo explained the environmental efforts the company is making.

“While construction will require filling nearly 195 acres of wetlands at the Camp Hall site,” wrote David Wren in Charleston’s The Post and Courier, “Volvo has agreed to preserve, restore and enhance 1,533 acres of nearby wetlands. The company also plans to power its production plant with renewable energy and will establish an on-site stormwater system with ponds that simulate wildlife habitats.”

An article in The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., noted the pivotal role played by Volvo executives’ early visit to the BMW plant in South Carolina. It’s clear that the experience and knowledge of Bobby Hitt, the state’s commerce secretary and a former BMW bigwig — also was pivotal in the final decision.

Apparently, widening of Interstate 26 is already underway, and Volvo officials have been promised a new exit off the interstate. That will surely cost tens of millions of public dollars in addition to the $200 million incentive package already promised by South Carolina officials.

The AJC’s Greg Bluestein summarized Volvo’s decision in three words: “Incentives, infrastructure and experience.”

Given all the incentives and given Charleston’s natural advantages in terms of workforce size, it’s a credit to officials in Savannah and in Georgia that we stayed in the running as long as we did.

 

And a few words about local roads

We’ve had a terrible year so far on local roads, and current traffic problems will likely worsen for the foreseeable future.

The proposed regional T-SPLOST, which local voters overwhelmingly rejected in 2012, would have created funding streams to address problems at virtually all of the current choke points.

The new sales tax would not have added capacity to Interstate 16 in Bryan County near the site of the proposed auto plant, but it would have enshrined a timeline for widening the highway through much of Chatham County.

T-SPLOST would also have funded costly bridge replacements and other improvements on the road to Tybee.

As things stand now, Georgians are about to start paying new taxes to fund transportation infrastructure, but there will be few if any obvious benefits to the Savannah area.

The lack of funding will certainly constrain sprawl, which seems like a plus to many of us who study principles of good urbanism, but our lack of investment comes at a price.

 

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
  • In a recent column, I speculated that Volvo had straightforward, fairly obvious reasons for choosing to build a new manufacturing facility in metro Charleston rather than in metro Savannah. In the last few days, we’ve gotten a little more news about that decision, which seemed to have surprised many folks in Savannah.
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Starlandia Creative Supply opens on Bull Street

Sat, 05/30/2015 - 10:22pm

When I asked Clinton Edminster how he expected the Starland area to change over the next few years, he paused for a moment and looked out the big windows of Starlandia Creative Supply.

With precision, he replied, “I see a lot of things that have been happening inside buildings, happening outside.”

Gesturing to the businesses on both the east and west sides of Bull Street, he added, “There is a playfulness that has to happen between the two sides of the street.”

“Why aren’t there crosswalks?” he wondered aloud.

That’s a question I’ve asked in this column, many times.

Starlandia Creative Supply (http://starlandiasupply.com) opened last week in a surprisingly large commercial space at 2438 Bull St, at the corner of 41st Street. The store carries new and used art supplies, plus a smattering of other eclectic items.

When I dropped by last week, Edminster and his employees were in the midst of an initial push to acquire used art supplies from Savannah College of Art and Design students before the spring quarter ended.

If you’ve got art supplies that you aren’t using, you can swap them at Starlandia for store credit equivalent to 30 percent of the store’s retail price for them. In the short time I was there, two art students brought bags of materials. One received well over $100 in store credit.

Edminster told me that a few people were so eager to unload materials that they simply gave them away. The Starlandia “street team” is now scouring lanes for discarded art supplies — a spring tradition for some local artists and pack rats.

Once Starlandia is fully stocked, Edminster estimates that about 70 percent of the store’s items will be used and about 30 percent new.

It’s hard to miss the brightly painted Starlandia, which seems like a nice fit with its closest retail neighbors — the vintage shop The Vicar’s Wife and the boutique NOLAjane.

A hardworking optimist who spent many summers working on his family’s salmon fishing boat out of Homer, Alaska, Edminster is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Art Rise Savannah, which sponsors the First Friday Art March and other initiatives.

For the summer months, Edminster said, Starlandia will focus on cultivating connections to local residents, including through a variety of workshops. When fall arrives, there will be another big push to draw SCAD students.

Starlandia is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

 

Starland’s evolution

There has already been considerable press coverage of Starlandia Creative Supply, and the evolution of Starland is a regular topic of conversation these days, at least for neighborhood residents, real estate professionals and other stakeholders.

Many of the discussions seem to assume the plans for an arts district anchored by the old Starland Dairy are relatively new, but the original vision — developed by John Deaderick and Greg Jacobs — dates to the 20th century. Things were moving ahead pretty quickly when this paper published the 2001 article “Starland Dairy project moo-ves toward approval.”

In those early years, Gallery 28 at the corner of Drayton and 41st streets was hosting cutting-edge exhibitions. The old nightclub at 2424 Bull St., which holds the Old Savannah City Mission Bargain Center, was being used as a DIY music venue, theatre space and art gallery.

The loss of the collective memory of Starland’s recent history has two roots.

First, much of the current energy in Starland is coming from young adults who are relatively new to the city or who were still in grade school when the vision developed. And a deep recession intervened, which essentially stalled private investment in marginal neighborhoods for five years.

So isn’t it possible that the current interest in Starland will stall, as it has stalled before?

No. The differences between then and now are extreme.

We now have new businesses committed to the area with solid leases.

The increasing rents in other commercial corridors in greater downtown Savannah make the centrally located Starland even more attractive.

The One West Victory development brought many more SCAD students to the neighborhood and is home to Hugh Acheson’s restaurant The Florence.

After a short interruption, renovations have restarted on the former Bull Street branch of Bank of America, which will also be a restaurant.

There’s also no ignoring that issues surrounding race are impacting the economy of the Bull Street corridor between Victory Drive and Forsyth Park.

Right now, the Starland area has some thriving black-owned businesses that cater to primarily black clienteles. Those businesses seem capable of thriving indefinitely, but they face a potential stumbling block as the residential demographics continue shifting dramatically.

Starland’s census tract lost hundreds of black residents between the 1990 and 2000 Censuses, and hundreds more between 2000 and 2010. As of 2010, the Census tract that includes Starland had more white residents than black residents.

The census tract immediately north — bounded more or less by Park Avenue, Price Street, 34th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard —had a slight black majority in 2010, but that has almost certainly flipped to a white majority by now.

The city of Savannah itself was responsible for the loss of more than 5 percent of the neighborhood’s black population with the demolition of dozens of homes in Meldrim Row.

Such dramatic changes clearly pose challenges for neighborhood businesses, no matter who owns them.

 

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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  • https://www.facebook.com/starlandiasupply
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CITY TALK: How much would it have cost to keep the Sand Gnats?

Mon, 05/25/2015 - 9:36pm

Just about everyone in Savannah would have liked to see the Sand Gnats stay in town.

But how big of a burden should taxpayers shoulder to support a private company like Hardball Capital, the Gnats’ owner?

We know that Hardball wanted a $30 million public investment for a new stadium, and we know that the team owners were primarily interested in a site at the stalled Savannah River Landing development.

Amazingly, the feasibility study for a new stadium did not even estimate the cost of acquiring land from the investors who currently control Savannah River Landing. We would certainly have been talking about many millions on top of the $30 million for the stadium itself.

The study also did not detail parking needs and costs, which would also have been substantial.

And the feasibility study omitted details about lost property tax revenue. Despite the collapse of the original plans for the site, Savannah River Landing remains one of the most valuable pieces of vacant land in the city.

SRL is also part of a special tax district that will help fund public projects in the immediate area. How would city ownership of so much land impact those tax revenues? The study never said.

But the new stadium would have generated revenue, right? Of course it would have, but the study never compared potential revenues to the revenues currently generated by Grayson.

The study also ignored the fact that the original developers attracted excellent press, including a lengthy New York Times piece, because Savannah River Landing represented a major extension of the historic Oglethorpe Plan. How much will be lost if we abandon that design?

In an official statement last week, Hardball Capital melodramatically said that the rest of the 2015 season will be “the swan song of professional baseball in Savannah” and that this is “the last season of professional baseball in Grayson Stadium.”

Given the deep limitations of the feasibility study, I am disinclined to take on faith the conclusion that Grayson Stadium is functionally obsolete. In that same statement, Hardball Capital itself said that attendance has “increased dramatically” under the company’s ownership.

The current city administration has been strangely eager to give up on historic properties, like the 19th century homes in Meldrim Row and the mid-century pharmacy on MLK, but it’s hard to imagine we’d ever tear down Grayson.

To the company’s credit, Hardball has recommended repurposing Grayson for high school and college ball, but that’s easier said than done. Local schools have home fields already, after all, and there would be considerable costs to ongoing use of Grayson.

Still, while Grayson might be down to its final at-bat, the game isn’t over yet.

 

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: How much would it have cost to keep the Sand Gnats?
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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. 

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  • CITY TALK: Reasons for Volvo decision might be obvious
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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. 

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  • 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