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CITY TALK: New/old 18+ policy will help city's music scene

Mon, 03/02/2015 - 9:53pm

Over the years, I’ve written regularly about the issue of allowing 18- to 20-year-olds into live music establishments that derive most of their income from alcohol.

I.e., should legal adults over the age of 18 be allowed into bars that have live entertainment?

Savannah’s young adults had this right for many years, but it was revoked about a decade ago despite the fact that competing cities across the Southeast have 18-plus or all-ages venues that serve alcohol but do not serve food.

Many folks — especially somewhat older ones who might not remember their early adult years very well — reflexively assume that it’s a bad idea to allow 18- to 20-year-olds into bars at all.

But those objectors apparently haven’t asked themselves a logical follow-up question: If these young adults weren’t in a club listening to music under the watchful eye of staff members who could lose their jobs if an underage patron is caught drinking, what would those “kids” be doing?

Some adults between ages 18 and 20 still live under their parents’ rules, of course, but many are out on their own. Many in the Savannah area are in the military or in college.

Excluding these independent young adults from nightclubs has had the entirely predictable effect of spurring a vibrant scene of unregulated house shows and parties.

The exclusion has also had the predictable effect of cutting young adults off from some key cultural offerings. I still remember seeing sad teenagers sitting in front of Live Wire Music Hall, writing in journals, while the somber British singer-songwriter Laura Marling played an early show inside.

Would a venue like Live Wire have survived if it could have benefited from the cover charges and sodas sold to 18- to 20-year-old patrons who wanted to hear live music? Hard to say.

I know there are some venue managers who don’t want to cater to patrons under 21 again. Too much trouble, not enough profit. So it’s entirely possible that some clubs might continue to be 21-plus for most shows, especially ones that might sell out.

Still, reinstating the 18-plus policy will offer many opportunities for club owners, entrepreneurs, promoters, artists and fans.

The city proposal announced last week would specifically exclude karaoke and DJ performances, so dance clubs would not be opened to 18- to 20-year-olds as they once were. That’s a slightly different issue, and perhaps that debate needs to play out on its own terms.

In any case, it’s good to see that the city is willing to revisit a failed policy and to treat more adults like adults.

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: Savannah's new cultural center: We need to get it right

Sat, 02/28/2015 - 10:33pm

I agree with the thrust of the recent criticisms about the city’s handling of the planned new Cultural Arts Center.

The project has taken too long, has been plagued by bureaucratic chaos and is possibly poised for considerable cost overruns.

And those aren’t the only reasons to be displeased.

Of course, there are reasons to be upbeat about the prospect of a new Cultural Arts Center, so I’m going to start with some of the positives.

Savannah is a city that values the arts. We have citizens and leaders who see the need for arts education and for civic performance and exhibition spaces.

The new Cultural Arts Center will house the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, provide arts instruction and host performances by both touring and Savannah-based arts organizations.

Right now, the city is renting a nondescript building on Henry Street for the Department of Cultural Affairs. The small black box theater hosts some interesting performances, and there are a variety of classes and exhibitions in the main space.

But the aging structure wasn’t designed for any of its current uses, and it shows.

Meanwhile, month after month, taxpayers are on the hook for rent.

The idea for an impressive Cultural Arts Center took hold during the tenures of Mayor Otis Johnson and City Manager Michael Brown. The project was included in the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum in 2006, with a budget line of $13.4 million.

Most voters did not know at the time, but city officials did know that many items on the project list would cost more than budgeted. With the Savannah economy booming, buoyed by housing and tourism, it was assumed that other money would be available to flesh out the SPLOST revenues.

For example, $80 million was budgeted for a new arena and a new public safety headquarters — way too little money to build both those projects.

Also, at the time of that

2006 vote, virtually no one was prepared for the depth of the 2007-2009 recession, which decimated sales tax revenues and other governmental funds.

So that $13.4 million estimate was low from the outset, but it’s still obviously worrisome that the proposed design could cost $25 million.

If the design is scaled back, what will we lose? Will the new building have performance spaces that could be used by the Savannah Music Festival and other organizations committed to programming of the highest quality?

Will we still have adequate spaces for summer camps, workshops and educational initiatives?

It’s absurd that the project has taken this long, but if we’re going to have a new Cultural Arts Center, we should make sure it meets diverse needs.

The location of the Cultural Arts Center has also been controversial, at least for some of us. I wish more people had objected when former City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney selected the current site at the southeast corner of Oglethorpe Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

The site is perfect if we’re imagining the Cultural Arts Center as part of a grand gateway to the city.

But the downtown location will be harder for most citizens to access, and the site would undoubtedly be attractive to hoteliers and other private developers.

Why are we spending so much to develop a public building on a site that could attract private development and would add so much to the property tax digest?

The city acquired the site in 2011 from Chatham County, which had long considered it for the location of the transit center, which was eventually built next to the bus station across MLK.

At the time of the 2011 sale, a county official said that it could take years to find a private buyer for the site, and a city official said that construction of the new arts center would likely begin in late 2012 or early 2013.

Ha.

It’s also worth noting that for years the city had planned to build the Cultural Arts Center at Hall Street and MLK. That location would have truly benefited from public investment, would have been more accessible to local residents and would still have been within the Landmark Historic District, easily accessible to visitors.

City officials eventually decided the Hall Street location could not offer enough parking and that creating more parking would be too expensive. Of course, these decisions were made by a failed city manager and by the same departments that once deemed the chosen arena site too small, even though it has room for an arena, a stadium and other development.

So this whole project has been a mess — and a slow mess.

If we’re going to have a new Cultural Arts Center at such a key gateway to downtown, history will not look kindly on us if we flub it.

 

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via bildawers@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: James Beard awards spotlight 2 locally

Mon, 02/23/2015 - 9:44pm

If you’re following the Savannah restaurant scene, you probably already know that two local establishments have been named semifinalists for the 2015 James Beard Foundation Awards.

Cheryl and Griffith Day from Back in the Day Bakery are semifinalists in the Outstanding Baker category.

The Grey is in the running for Best New Restaurant.

The James Beard Foundation gives out some awards on a regional basis, but both of these categories have semifinalists from across the nation.

So Cheryl and Griffith Day are up against 24 other bakers from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore. The Grey is pitted against restaurants from Brooklyn to Beverly Hills.

The announcement of the semifinalists is great news for Savannah and perhaps another indication of positive trends in the regional dining scene.

In some respects, Savannah restaurants have simply followed national trends — like serving more local and more seasonal foods — but there’s more to it than that.

Savannah has had many restaurants over the years that have attracted national attention and wowed visitors, but we have not developed a “food scene” that competes with some other southern cities.

For example, Charleston and Atlanta each have 11 semifinalists for Beard awards this year.

Asheville has three semifinalists, all of whom are in the category for best chef in the Southeast, a category won by Elizabeth Terry of Elizabeth on 37th in 1995.

Is it fair to compare Savannah to these other cities?

Yes and no.

While Savannah is an important tourist destination and holds a unique place in the American psyche, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) has fewer than 400,000 residents.

The population of the Asheville metro area is not that much larger than ours, but Charleston has more than 700,000 residents. Other southern cities that are prominently included in the Beard awards — like Atlanta and New Orleans — have much larger metro area populations.

It’s easier for restaurants to attract national attention in larger media markets, and there is simply a bigger pool of potential customers in Charleston than in Savannah.

But there’s still a sense around town that the local restaurant scene might be heading into a culinary and entrepreneurial renaissance.

Back in the Day has thrived for more than a decade at the corner of Bull and 40th streets. The Grey is obviously a lot closer to tourist destinations, but many consider the location on the west side of Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard to be on the fringes of downtown.

If we really are headed into a local food renaissance, we’ll probably see more and more establishments that push boundaries — with their menus and with their locations.

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: Sandfly BBQ on Henry Street looks like a winner

Sat, 02/21/2015 - 10:27pm
Sandfly BBQ on Henry Street looks like a winner

The second location of Sandfly BBQ is now open at 120 W. Henry St. in SCAD’s old Streamliner Diner.

The vintage diner car proves an excellent space for an established brand like Sandfly BBQ. The original wood, the cozy booths, the line of stools at the counter, the ample windows and other design elements make the space inviting, and the historical echoes create a perfect home for the moon pies and Fanta soda.

Sandfly BBQ has had a winning menu at its Ferguson Avenue location since 2007, and owner Keith Latture has merely tweaked things for the new Henry Street location.

I dropped by last week for the smoked sausage plate ($11). What a hearty lunch.

Sandfly’s sausage is wonderful, especially served with grilled onions, and I made good choices for my sides — collards and mac & cheese.

Other plates include pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked chicken, pulled chicken, chicken salad and ribs. Sandfly BBQ also serves a variety of sandwiches ($4.50 to $8.50), as well as salads and Brunswick stew.

New to the downtown menu is The Wally ($7), a sandwich with duck fat fried chicken fingers, pickles, red cabbage slaw and buttermilk ranch. I’m looking forward to trying that one.

Sandfly BBQ had only been open a few days when I popped in, but the cozy interior and established menu made the restaurant feel like an old friend.

The new restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. There is a fair amount of on-street parking in the immediate neighborhood, and the restaurant has reserved off-street spaces along Barnard Street, just steps from the entrance.

It looks like more parking could easily be added on Barnard Street if it becomes necessary.

SCAD’s Eckburg Hall is right across the street from the new location of Sandfly BBQ. The Queen Anne Revival style building was built in 1892 as an elementary school.

It’s literally impossible to imagine that any of our modern elementary schools will eventually be repurposed for college instruction – it’s impossible to imagine that any of our modern schools will even be standing in 120 years.

Eckburg houses the college’s fashion department, which is one reason the block of Henry Street between Whitaker and Barnard streets offers some of the most interesting people watching you’ll find in the downtown area.

Photographer Mangue Banzima is now based in New York City, but you’ll see many images taken near Eckburg Hall on Qui Style, his blog devoted to street fashion.

Eckburg Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings among SCAD’s impressive holdings. When the American Planning Association recently selected Savannah’s Victorian District as one of the nation’s great neighborhoods for 2014, the organization cited the old school in the list of local assets.

If the APA were honoring the Victorian District in 2015, Sandfly BBQ just might warrant a mention too.

We are in the midst of some good years for Savannah’s Victorian District.

The Victorian District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, has a long, important history. Forsyth Park — half of which lies in the Victorian District — is one of the city’s crown jewels.

But some of the more recent developments are cementing the sense of neighborhood. The American Planning Association’s designation cited the presence of some unique entities, including the headquarters of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign (SBC), Georgia Bikes and Healthy Savannah.

The APA also observed that the American Legion Post 135 “complex serves as an excellent example of adaptive reuse; as a local neighborhood hangout it draws a diverse crowd with local shops, bars and a variety of restaurant options.”

As I’ve noted in this space before, data from the 2000 and 2010 censuses show that nearby neighborhoods are seeing rapid demographic change. Longtime residents, including me, would like to see the neighborhood improve without quite so much turnover, but Savannah officials seem to have no plan for addressing the core issues that are causing so many people to move out and so many other people to move in.

Sandfly BBQ is in census tract 113, which was fairly evenly balanced between black and white residents in 2010. Between 2000 and 2010, however, the number of white residents nearly doubled while the number of black residents declined by a third. Those trends appear to have continued in the five years since the last census.

But you won’t be thinking about any of these underlying trends when you’re sitting at Sandfly BBQ — you’ll just be thinking about that plate of good food in front of you.

 

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: Mayor's speech: What it said, what it didn’t

Mon, 02/16/2015 - 10:25pm

Mayor Edna Jackson’s state of the city speech last week focused heavily on Savannah’s persistent violent crime.

Jackson cited a variety of reasons for the city’s violence, including Savannah’s gun culture and “generational crime occurring in the same neighborhoods — and same families — year after year.”

Jackson outlined “a five-step plan to reduce violent crime” that included hiring Chief Jack Lumpkin, fully staffing the police force, implementing a violence reduction model that will be developed with “policing expert” David Kennedy, deploying new technologies and reducing poverty through “better education, better jobs and better job training.”

Critics would have pounced if Jackson had made mention of other priorities, but I still wish she had devoted some of the speech to a broader vision for the city. It’s impossible to address the fifth of those goals — poverty reduction — without a more comprehensive plan.

I was also struck by several elements that were largely absent from Jackson’s speech.

Yes, Jackson said, “We need a stronger police presence on our streets.”

But Lumpkin himself has gone one step further. He has routinely linked Savannah’s violence directly to street crime and “open air drug markets.”

Press coverage of Lumpkin’s tenure as police chief in Athens reveals that his forces have a history of addressing suspicious loitering and street drug sales.

Missing from Jackson’s speech was any acknowledgement that Savannah has long ignored known trouble spots. Sure, crime has persisted for a long time in many neighborhoods, but we have allowed it.

Jackson also seemed to place full blame for the slowly collapsing police merger on Chatham County officials. In the many years I’ve been writing this column, Savannah city government has been plagued at times by insularity, and it seems that Jackson does not realize the extent to which the public has turned against the city in this dispute with the county.

I keep asking one question about the merger that created the joint Savannah-Chatham County force: Would we be better off with a somewhat weakened merger or no merger at all?

Jackson also failed to mention that part of her crime reduction vision for the Central Precinct involves moving dozens of poor people to the west side of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, destroying a bunch of historic homes in Meldrim Row, closing a block of a city street and building a 1.6 acre police sub-station.

It’s a cynical move that sounds like something from 1955, not 2015.

Jackson’s lifetime of experiences in Savannah could help her lead the city out of its current crime woes, but those experiences might be hindering her, too. If we just repeat old mistakes and offer the same old platitudes, we’ll get nowhere.

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: A Savannah St. Patrick's Day tradition: Last-minute decisions

Sat, 02/14/2015 - 10:09pm

In 2014, Georgia lawmakers passed a bill allowing bars in Savannah to be open on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day.

The law won’t apply this year, however, because of the narrow way it was written. Savannah bars can open if a Sunday falls on March 16, 17 or 18, but this year the pre-holiday Sunday is March 15.

The law also placed a strict limitation on hours of operation. Bars had to close at midnight Sunday even though restaurants that serve alcohol could stay open later.

At the time, this column noted that the new law wouldn’t apply in 2015. And it has always seemed clear that the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day will likely once again be the hardest partying day of the extended holiday.

Last year, when St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Monday, there were more wristband sales on Saturday than on Friday, Sunday and Monday combined.

So there was no reason for anyone to be surprised that the organizations that most benefitted from sale of wristbands — City Market, the Waterfront Association and the Savannah Downtown Business Association — would request a four-day festival.

Still, when the idea was raised earlier this year, a city staffer claimed we hadn’t had a four-day festival in many years, even though we had four days of wristband sales in 2014.

The $5 wristbands allow folks to drink outside from to-go cups within the “control zone,” which includes not only River Street but also the City Market area and much of Broughton Street.

Wristband sales over four festival days raised about $400,000 in 2014, almost exactly the same amount raised in two festival days in 2013.

But consider that in 2001, when the festival was also two days and the control zone was limited to River Street, sales of $5 wristbands netted $424,000.

Perhaps the decline in 2014 compared to 2013 can be blamed on wet, chilly weather, but the numbers suggest a long-term decline in festival attendance.

As I said in this space last year, I think the wristband requirement discourages local residents from going into the “zone” during the holiday period. Folks just don’t like paying to do something that they can do for free throughout the rest of the year.

Some influential people around town were livid last year when I shared that idea, and I’m sure they’ll be mad again now. But it’s a pretty straightforward observation.

I should also add that it’s likely that future wristband sales will be compromised as more revelers realize how lax enforcement is.

After the 2014 parade, I wandered into the zone with a to-go cup. The first wristband location that I passed had already been closed, and, once I made it to the Ellis Square area, I saw literally zero effort at enforcement.

Simply put, police officers have better things to do during the festival than asking people who are clearly of legal drinking age to prove they have purchased wristbands.

So here we are again.

The holiday is a month away. Local leaders are once again lobbying lawmakers in Atlanta, who have lots of contentious issues already on their plates, to amend the language that was passed just last year.

Bar owners, many of whom have large staffs and many of whom like to book entertainment, will likely be waiting again until the last minute to know whether they will be allowed to open on March 15.

If the law is not changed, Savannah bars will have to remain closed on the Sunday of the festival period even though temporary vendors will be allowed to make outdoor alcohol sales. Which seems crazy.

So what are we going to do in 2016, when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Thursday? Will we again be lobbying state legislators to allow bars to open on Sunday? Will we expand wristband sales to six days to capture that lucrative pre-holiday Saturday?

Even though we’ve seen a long-term decline in wristband sales, will we continue to chase revenue by expanding the festival zone farther and farther south?

Is it really so hard to find and enact policies that are consistent from year to year — ones that don’t require such last-minute scrambling?

 

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: BiSImage caption: A Savannah St. Patrick's Day tradition: Last-minute decisionsTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Sly's Sliders and Fries offers flavorful menu

Mon, 02/09/2015 - 9:22pm

Late last year, Sly’s Sliders and Fries opened quietly at 1710 Abercorn St.

That’s between 33rd and 34th streets in the Thomas Square neighborhood. The narrow storefront was occupied a couple of years ago by Sammy Greens.

On a recent trip, someone in line in front of me didn’t know what sliders were, so I guess it’s worth saying that a slider is a small sandwich or burger on a bun.

All of Sly’s sliders are $3, and each of the nine options features unique flavor combinations. I’ve made several visits, and my favorite sliders so far are The Jerk Store, which includes Caribbean jerk chicken and pepper jack cheese, and the Banh U, Banh Mi with tempura shrimp and other items.

Sly’s also has slider dogs — small hot dogs about half the size of regular ones. I really like the sliders, but I’ve enjoyed the dogs even more.

If you asked me right now, I’d say my favorite slider dog is the Mustard Tiger, with Dijon-tiger sauce, a fried egg and American cheese. My opinion might change tomorrow.

Like the sliders, the dogs are $3 each.

Sizable servings of hand-cut fries ($2) can be augmented with a variety of toppings (50 cents to $2). I haven’t tried all the available options but so far have most enjoyed the garlic sauce, on the side.

Sly’s Sliders and Fries is open every day from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Sly’s joins a number of other casual spots in the neighborhood, including Blowin’ Smoke on Habersham Street and several restaurants on Bull Street, including Kapa Café, Butterhead Greens Café and Foxy Loxy Print Gallery and Café.

On a recent Saturday afternoon at Sly’s, there was a steady stream of customers, many of whom seemed to have walked to the cozy restaurant. I live nearby, and it’s my impression that more and more residents are walking to neighborhood destinations. I wish we kept official counts of pedestrian traffic like we do with vehicular traffic.

The northern portion of Thomas Square lacks the residential density to sustain a large number of restaurants. The establishments on Bull Street can tap into the SCAD students who have classes in Arnold Hall, but Sly’s will need to attract a more diverse clientele.

It’s certainly good news for spots like Sly’s Sliders and Fries that we’re slowly seeing some residential infill construction and that a number of formerly vacant properties have been rehabbed.

I’ll have more on those trends in an upcoming column.

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: Georgia transportation proposal tough deal for taxpayers, local governments

Mon, 02/02/2015 - 9:25pm

When the proposed transportation funding bill was released last week in Atlanta, elected officials touting the measure used various phrases that included three words: “no,” “new” and “taxes.”

But let’s be clear. If the proposed bill were enacted today, it would raise taxes at the pump substantially, and if it becomes law in anything close to its current form, many millions of dollars will be shifted annually from local tax coffers to the state.

Loyal readers might recall that I supported the 1 percent sales tax for transportation infrastructure that was soundly rejected by coastal voters. As messy as that process was, we at least knew what projects were on the list and when they would be completed.

Of course, if we had passed the so-called T-SPLOST, we’d still be seeing the current maneuvering in Atlanta. This isn’t about Savannah, after all. The vast majority of the money raised under this plan will be spent in the Atlanta metro area and in the farther flung exurbs.

In other words, if the Atlanta region had passed its T-SPLOST, we wouldn’t be faced with this proposed legislation that will hurt taxpayers, motorists and local governments statewide. Rural counties are likely to be hit especially hard.

With gas around $2 a gallon, we are currently paying about 22 cents a gallon in state sales and excise taxes. The proposed legislation would replace those payments with a single state excise tax of 29.2 cents per gallon.

That new excise tax would be subject to annual revisions, almost certainly upward, based upon changes in fuel efficiency of new vehicles and in road construction costs.

As things stand now, local governments get 3 percent in sales taxes for every dollar spent on gasoline, but that money will eventually disappear.

Current SPLOSTs and ESPLOSTs would be grandfathered, but future special purpose local option sales taxes would get no revenue from gasoline sales. The 1 percent sales tax collected by the ongoing local option sales tax (LOST) would apparently disappear.

To fill the holes created by the diversion of local tax revenue, this bill gives municipalities the right to impose excise taxes of up to three cents without a referendum.

Given the current wording, the legislation seems to leave the door open for multiple local governments to impose those 3 cent per gallon taxes. In other words, it’s possible that both Savannah City Council and the Chatham County Commission could impose those local excise taxes, which would raise the excise tax per gallon to 35.2 cents.

The bill contains other onerous elements that I’ll discuss in a future column.

 

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: Strong employment data to finish 2014

Sat, 01/31/2015 - 8:18pm

About a month ago, various analysts around town, including me, were trumpeting a strong 2014 for the regional economy and predicting solid growth in 2015, too.

We were making those judgments and predictions without some key numbers from the end of 2014. Fortunately, the employment data released last week largely reinforced the existing narrative.

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 166,100 payroll jobs in December 2014, up an impressive 2.7 percent from 161,700 in December 2013.

Gains were especially strong in transportation, warehousing and utilities; professional and business services; and leisure and hospitality.

The number of payroll jobs in the sector that includes construction increased by 300 over the past year. That’s a 5.8 percent gain, but I’d like to see a few more months of data before getting too excited about that trend.

Still, it seems safe to predict that 2015 will be the strongest year for builders since the housing bust.

Some of the other year-end numbers were not quite as strong.

Manufacturing employment was flat in 2014 in the Savannah metro area, as were both state and federal employment.

Compared to December 2013, the number of initial claims for unemployment insurance in the Savannah metro area fell a modest 4.6 percent in December 2014.

Georgia’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in December was 6.9 percent. That’s down from 7.2 percent in November and down from 7.4 percent in December 2013.

The Savannah metro area unemployment rate, which is not adjusted for seasonality, was 6.2 percent in December, down from 6.6 percent in December 2013.

Those are all positive trends, on the whole, but it’s worth adding that the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the U.S. in December was 5.6 percent. Georgia’s unemployment rate in December was the fourth worst in the nation after the District of Columbia, Mississippi and California.

The household survey, which is used to determine the unemployment rate and other characteristics of the labor force, suggests considerably weaker job growth than the estimates of payroll gains from the establishment survey that I cited previously.

A closer look at the data reveals that the December unemployment rates in Effingham and Bryan counties, 5.4 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively, were significantly lower than Chatham County’s 6.5 percent.

Chatham County’s rate continues to be dragged down by the city of Savannah, which had a 7.6 percent unemployment rate in December. That’s down from 8 percent in December 2013 but still very high.

Despite the cautionary notes, there is ample evidence to predict that 2015 will be strong year for job growth and for the regional economy generally.

 

Chief Lumpkin
re-emphasizes problem of street-level violence

Savannah-Chatham Police Chief Jack Lumpkin addressed the local NAACP last week at St. Paul CME Church. According to coverage in this newspaper by Katie Martin, Lumpkin once again used an important public platform to draw a causal link between street-level drug sales and the city’s ongoing violence.

“The only way to control crime,” Lumpkin said, “is to control gangs, control guns and control street-level drugs or you’re going to have street-level violence and shots fired.”

This isn’t the first time Lumpkin has made these connections clear, and I sure hope it won’t be the last.

Sure, previous chiefs have occasionally said similar things, but the rhetoric has never been so straightforward, at least not in the 15 years I’ve been writing this column.

And policing street-level crime such as drug dealing and prostitution has seemed a low priority in many neighborhoods. Once residents presume that patrol officers aren’t going to do anything about drug dealers and prostitutes wandering their streets, they quit calling.

Last week, in the wake of shooting incidents in neighborhoods that are not accustomed to them, I saw a couple of impassioned pleas on social media to focus on the societal ills that many see as the causes of crime rather than focus on tougher enforcement.

I’m all for better educational programs, mentoring programs and all sorts of other efforts, but we’ve got kids growing up in neighborhoods where criminal activity happens blatantly, right out in the open, on a daily basis.

Many parents have been able to get their kids out of such neighborhoods — and good for them. Of course, as families like those leave, neighborhoods can deteriorate even further.

I live just a few blocks from the Jefferson Street corridor, so that’s the area I’m always pondering, but others of you know different crime-ridden neighborhoods, corridors and blocks.

Over the years, the neighborhood near Jefferson Street has experienced a massive turnover. Many longtime residents have fled the crime and the attendant blight, while, ironically, other residents are slowly being displaced by forces of gentrification.

I actually expect most of the Metropolitan Neighborhood (more or less bounded by Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, Victory Drive, Bull Street and Anderson Street) to be largely gentrified within a generation, as dog walkers replace streetwalkers.

But even if the street-level crime leaves one neighborhood over time, it will just wind up somewhere else if we allow 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: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Home Depot helps out American Legion post

Mon, 01/26/2015 - 8:50pm

As many of you know, a fire last spring caused significant damage in the rear of the first floor of the American Legion Post 135 and caused smoke damage throughout the building.

The grand ballroom on the second floor, which has been home to many weddings and other special events, reopened months ago, but renovations have continued on the first floor, which houses Legion offices, a meeting room, the organization’s popular bar and Betty Bombers All-American Eatery.

Folks at the Legion have been making slow but steady progress toward reopening the first floor, but it was sure great to see the flurry of activity there on Saturday.

When I arrived Saturday morning, volunteers from Home Depot were efficiently ripping up the dingy old tile just inside the front door.

Further inside, the Home Depot crew was hard at work on the women’s restroom.

The Home Depot Foundation recently awarded Post 135 a $12,000 grant for materials, and about 15 employees from the Victory Drive location volunteered to help with the work on Saturday.

Post Commander Tommy Fordham graciously showed me around the renovated space.

The men’s and women’s restrooms are now handicap accessible, storage areas have been improved and Betty Bombers has a sparkling new kitchen.

While I was there, a Home Depot volunteer offered to refinish the wood floors revealed in two areas where the old tile was ripped up, although it’s still possible that newer ceramic tile will be laid in high-traffic spots.

Also, city officials recently determined that the building needs a much larger grease trap. So we’re not quite at the end, but the end is definitely in sight.

Down the road, Legion members plan to install an elevator as they work to make the entire historic building accessible.

When the lounge reopens, probably in mid February, patrons will find a magnificent new bar top with almost 500 embedded military service patches.

Over the last decade or so, American Legion Post 135 has become a vital meeting point for folks from throughout Savannah, but it has been especially important for those of us who live near the south end of Forsyth Park.

We’ve really missed that connectivity over the last nine months, and there is constant talk around the neighborhood about the Legion’s eventual reopening.

Post 135 has also served as a vital role as landlord for small businesses, including Betty Bombers.

Brighter Day Natural Foods has rented space in the Legion complex for many years. The Sentient Bean opened in 2001, with Local 11 Ten and wine shop Le Chai opening more recently. Those businesses all contribute in their own ways to the growing sense of community south of Forsyth Park.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is the status quo really that murky?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

end up with a large drunken party.

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

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

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

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

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

CITY TALK: Downtown favorite returns with Lady Saigon Cuisine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the police merger better off dead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next for St. Patrick’s Day?

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

There were two big changes in 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

CITY TALK: The Grey a thrilling addition to food scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

CITY TALK: Trends to watch in upcoming city elections

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

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

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

Anything is possible, but not everything is likely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Bill DawersSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: 2015 looks promising for Broughton St.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clearly not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

CITY TALK: 2015 local economy looking strong

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

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

It looks like there are lots of green lights ahead.

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

The latest employment data are certainly encouraging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CITY TALK: Can city of Savannah save police merger?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions for 2015:

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

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

What will Broughton Street look like a year from now?

What’s next for Hutchinson Island?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

So Liberty Street Gallery is certainly a welcome addition.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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