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CITY TALK: Trends for our next generation of tourists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m sure we’ll be going back.

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

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

We opted for cushioned seats in the window facing Whitaker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rethinking the north end of Whitaker Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
  • CITY TALK: Savannah location of CO now open on Whitaker Street
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Declining wristband sales point to flawed policies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That contradiction is bad for public relations.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Take the survey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Finding a balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

will sign this new bill into law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

CITY TALK: Courthouse complex presents long-range issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

CITY TALK: Bull Street intersections hazardous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savannah Music Festival off and running

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

CITY TALK: Construction, manufacturing jobs on rebound

Sat, 03/21/2015 - 10:09pm
In a recent column, I took a close look at January’s payroll employment estimates for the Savannah metro area, which includes Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties. Those estimates showed robust growth over the past year, and the newly released data for February show strong growth is continuing into 2015.   Employment in Georgia grew by 3.8 percent between February 2014 and February 2015. Growth in the private sector was even stronger at 4.3 percent.   Payroll job growth over the past year in the Savannah metro area outpaced the state as a whole. We saw 4.9 percent job growth between February 2014 and February 2015. The private sector added jobs at a 5.7 percent rate.   As I’ve noted here before, economic recoveries in recent decades have included steady increases in public employment, but the ongoing recovery from the deep 2007-09 recession has come in the face of cuts and stagnation for many public sector jobs.   The extremely strong employment growth rates are dramatically higher than the rate of population growth. We won’t see numbers like these forever, but we are definitely making up for some of the ground lost in the recession.   And, yes, we are still trying to escape the shadow of that protracted recession and slow recovery. Last week’s announcement on the closure of J.T. Turner Construction was a sad reminder of lingering woes. (Note that a separate company, J.T. Turner Construction Co. of Savannah Inc., will continue to operate, according to a statement.)   Two sectors I have been eyeing closely have shown particularly robust growth over the past year. Year over year, local construction employment increased by 10.7 percent, and manufacturing employment by 5.1 percent.   The broad category of professional and business services grew by 10.3 percent over the past year.   Leisure and hospitality continued to add jobs faster than any other local sector, however, with a 10.8 percent increase from February 2014 to February 2015. Almost 25,000 local residents work in leisure and hospitality.    Statewide, 10.6 percent of payroll jobs are in leisure and hospitality. In Savannah, that number is 14.7 percent.    All of the estimates cited so far are based on the ongoing survey of payroll establishments.   The unemployment rate is estimated through a separate survey of households. Many working people, including the self-employed and domestic workers, do not show up in the counts of payroll jobs. The estimates from the establishment survey are considered more reliable from month to month than the much noisier numbers from the household survey, but all the data tell us something. The Georgia Department of Labor recently released the January workforce estimates for the state and for various political subdivisions. The Savannah metro area had a 6.4 percent unemployment rate in January 2015, down from 7.4 percent in January 2014.    January is typically a weak month for employment, and the metro area estimates are not adjusted for normal seasonal trends, so we could see the local unemployment rate fall below 6 percent later this spring. The Savannah metro area’s unemployment rate in January was just below the unadjusted state rate of 6.5 percent.   The unemployment rate fell in the Savannah metro area because the number of people reporting themselves as working outpaced the growth of the local labor force. The size of the workforce increased by 2,851 over the past year to 171,914 in January 2015. Over the same period, the number of employed persons increased by 4,368.   These are robust numbers. Really robust.   Unemployment rates are improving across the state, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the numbers remain dire in some Georgia counties, especially in lightly populated areas in the southern half of the state.   Fifty-six of Georgia’s 159 counties had unemployment rates of more than 8 percent in January 2015. In 20 of those counties, the unemployment rate was more than 9 percent.  The ongoing struggles of rural hospitals and rural school systems do not bode well for those areas.    We have not yet seen the final version of the bill that would increase transportation funding in the state, but some of the provisions will likely hurt rural areas, where residents have no choice but to drive long distances and where major road projects are not warranted.    But things are looking pretty good here at home.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401. By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Local, regional visitors dominate St. Patrick's crowds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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CITY TALK: Ancient Order of Hibernians raises profile of Irish road bowling tournament

Sat, 03/14/2015 - 9:35pm

What’s more fun than bowling a cannonball down a road on a Saturday morning?

If you’ve ever participated in Irish road bowling, you know the peculiar delight of seeing that 28-ounce sphere roll along a straightaway and then catch a sweeping curve at just the right speed and angle so that it keeps rolling, and rolling and rolling some more.

If you’ve ever Irish road bowled, you probably also know what happens when you get too clever in your read of the road’s angles. If you overcompensate, the ball might just go straight into the weeds. And then get lost.

“But I thought ...,” you will mutter to yourself as one of your teammates laughs and the other one scowls.

On March 21, the Savannah division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians will host its 2015 Spring Irish Road Bowling Tournament on the Hutchinson Island racetrack. AOH Savannah (http://www.aohsavannah.com) has been hosting road bowling tournaments for about a decade, but the group is now raising the profile of the spring event, which is a significant fundraiser benefiting local charities.

“Going forward, it is our intention to have the spring tournament the first Saturday after St. Patrick’s Day and market it as the unofficial end to the green season here in Savannah,” said Greg Jenkins, AOH Savannah vice president.

For many locals, that “green season” begins with the Savannah Irish Festival, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting finish than a big road bowling competition. If there’s wind or rain for the outdoor event, then that just makes it feel more authentically Irish.

“All are welcome. We consider it a family event,” Jenkins said. “You don’t have to be Irish.”

I actually am a little Irish — I once visited the farm in County Galway that my grandmother left as a teenager bound alone for America — but no one will check for your green card when you register.

And the dreaded cannonball is merciless to all nationalities, religions and ethnicities.

By the way, while stronger people might have an advantage on the course, successful bowlers come in all sizes. To that extent, road bowling is

a little like 10-pin bowling. If you see the road correctly, get a little leverage and manage a smooth release, you’ll probably out-bowl competitors who try to rely on brute strength alone.

“Road bowling is a sport that anyone can do as long as you can hear screams of ‘faugh a ballagh’ (‘clear the way’) or ‘ball, ball ball,’ and get out of the way as cannonballs are being hurled down the road at you,” said longtime bowler Chris Hagan, whom Jenkins credits with introducing the sport to Savannah.

“It is not always the young lads that can pitch the ball the farthest that win,” Hagan said. “It also takes finesse to get through the S-curves and banked curves.

“The most important part of holding your team together is to not get a case of the shanks. If too many have misthrows, you will quickly fall out of the competition. It is loads of fun, and as soon as you have played it once, you will be anxiously awaiting the next tournament.”

The Hutchinson Island course is approximately 2 miles, according to Jenkins, and the winning team will likely have close to 20 bowls. If you’re a math whiz, you know that means an average of 500 feet per turn — that’s a long way for a metal ball to stay on the road.

Advance registration for the March 21 tournament is strongly encouraged. Registration forms and a PayPal link can be found at http://www.aohsavannah.com. It’s $45 for each team that pays in advance and $60 for walkups on the day of the event.

AOH Savannah has successfully secured corporate sponsors for the upcoming tournament, including Coach’s Corner. The Victory Drive restaurant will be the site of a social event on the Sunday after the Saturday tournament.

Given how much fun road bowling is, I think the sport has tremendous growth potential in America. Jenkins told me that there is a hub of road bowling activity in West Virginia, but you won’t find the sport in many other places on this side of the pond.

Maybe with this fresh push by AOH Savannah to raise the profiles of the spring tournament and of the sport itself, we’ll really see road bowling take off in Savannah.

 

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: Latest estimates show strong job growth in key sectors

Mon, 03/09/2015 - 9:14pm

Data released last week by the Georgia Department of Labor show a decline in payroll jobs in the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) from December to January, but don’t worry about that.

January is always a lousy month for employment, and the metro area estimates released by the state are not adjusted for seasonality.

The numbers provide even more confirmation that 2014 was one of the best years ever for job growth in the Savannah area.

Of course, we’re not doing this on our own. We’re riding the wave of the national economy, which is finally reeling in some of the slack that we’ve seen across many sectors since the 2007-2009 recession.

Consider that 2014 was the best year for job growth in the United States since 1999, and it was the best year for private sector job growth since 1997.

We’re also riding the wave of a much stronger statewide economy. The number of payroll jobs in Georgia increased by 3.2 percent from January 2014 to January 2015. The growth was dominated by strong numbers from the Atlanta metro area, which saw payroll jobs increase by 4.3 percent, but there were also solid year-over-year gains in most of the state’s metro areas.

The Savannah area had an estimated 165,600 payroll jobs in January 2015, up 8,200 (5.2 percent) from January 2014. That’s an eye poppingly good number that we shouldn’t expect to see repeated every year.

In previous months, there had been reason for cautious optimism that construction employment was on the rise, and these latest estimates suggest things are finally turning around for that sector, which was decimated by the housing bust.

The number of manufacturing jobs in the Savannah metro area increased by 1,000 between January 2014 and January 2015. That’s an impressive 6.5 percent gain.

But leisure and hospitality led the way in 2014. In January, the sector had 24,300 payroll jobs, an 11.0 percent increase over the past year.

As a community, we’ve placed a lot of chips on tourism, and critics are right when they note that many of the jobs offer low wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay in the U.S. in 2012 for bartenders, cooks, servers and other food workers was under $21,000.

At the same time, jobs in leisure and hospitality can provide entry-level opportunities to those with minimal formal education, and many of the jobs offer quick opportunities for advancement. I know many adults living full, rich lives and making good money in the hospitality industry.

Interestingly, the estimates released last week also show an increase of 600 jobs in the information sector over the past year. It will be interesting to see if that number holds in the coming months.

 

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: Design plays critical role in public spaces

Sat, 03/07/2015 - 9:06pm

Savannah city officials announced last week that they’re moving ahead with reconstruction of the fountain area in front of the outdoor stage in Forsyth Park.

That announcement provoked a predictable round of online comments from folks who are upset — even disgusted! — that the city has been forced to remove the decorative fountain because so many parents allowed their children to play in it.

Well, let me defend those parents who sent their precious charges into the water despite the sharp pieces of metal under the surface. (No, I do not mean that as a metaphor for the travails of parenting.)

For the last several years, there have actually been two fountains in front of the stage in Forsyth. There’s the decorative fountain that the public is not supposed to enter, despite the invitingly low wall, and there’s the spray fountain that shoots out from the base of the decorative fountain.

We made quite a big deal of telling members of the community that we were building an interactive fountain in Forsyth, but on the very first day the water was flowing, the decorative fountain was turned on, but the spray fountain wasn’t.

Unsuspecting parents showed up, saw a new fountain flowing and turned their kids loose. Even as the city took steps to warn parents that the decorative fountain was not for play, those parents received other unspoken messages.

Even on very hot days, the splash fountain would sometimes be turned off. Meanwhile, children saw other children already playing in the decorative fountain, and some parents could remember letting their kids into the fountain on previous trips with no bloodshed.

And then there was that low wall, which invited even some toddlers to start climbing.

There are obvious design lessons here – lessons that extend beyond the fountains themselves.

You can put up a plethora of signs telling citizens how you want them to interact with

a public space, but the rules are just one consideration. If the design of the space sends messages that contradict the signage, users and visitors will make their own call. And they’ll often do what the design tells them to do, not what the signs say.

Consider that you won’t routinely see people of any age — except the occasional late-night risk-taker — in the other fountain in Forsyth Park. It’s designed in a way that clearly tells visitors that they’re not supposed to jump the fence and step on the landscaping.

Consider Middleground Road on the Southside. It’s a flat, four-lane divided roadway with relatively little traffic. No surprise that virtually all drivers exceed the posted 35 mph speed limit.

One day last week, I found myself driving on Price Street during afternoon rush hour. Traffic was moving smoothly between signalized intersections at just under 30 mph. That seemed like a reasonable pace for a short trip through several historic neighborhoods.

When Price had two lanes and no visual friction from parked cars, that speed would have felt way too slow to me.

Sure, enforcement and fear of enforcement play vital roles in controlling how citizens use public spaces, but design matters at least as much.

Which brings me to the ongoing conflicts between drivers and pedestrians along the Bull Street corridor in the Historic District.

There was a pedestrian killed a few years ago in one of the crosswalks on Oglethorpe Avenue, and we’ll likely see similar tragedies because of a fundamental design problem.

If pedestrians are in the crosswalk, they have the right of way. That’s the law. But spend a little time watching what happens where Bull Street intersects with east-west streets like Oglethorpe Avenue and Liberty Street.

Drivers on the east-west streets have just gone through signalized intersections at Drayton and Whitaker streets, and they don’t see any stop sign at Bull. So the street design is telling drivers to keep going.

At the same time, the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk should be telling those drivers to yield. Many drivers, especially out-of-towners, note the mixed signals and treat those Bull Street intersections like four-way stops.

Other drivers, including some visitors and many locals, sail through those intersections under the presumption that their cars should take precedence over pedestrians.

Yes, we can continue to tell pedestrians to be more cautious, and we could implement police stings to ticket and educate drivers about yielding the right of way to folks in the crosswalks.

But those key intersections of Bull Street are designed in ways that tell north-south pedestrians to keep walking and that tell east-west drivers to keep driving.

Those conflicting signals will likely result in something a lot worse than a bloody foot from a jet in a fountain.

 

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: 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