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CITY TALK: Employment remains strong with runoff election looming

Mon, 11/23/2015 - 9:34pm

According to data released in recent days, the Savannah area economy remains generally strong.

That’s important news as we head toward the Dec. 1 runoff election in the city of Savannah for mayor, an alderman at-large seat and first district alderman.

The Coastal Empire Economic Monitor published by the Armstrong State University Center for Regional Analysis indicated local economic growth leveled off in the third quarter, but signs point toward continued growth at least through mid-2016.

The October employment numbers from the Georgia Department of Labor also paint a fairly robust picture.

Initial claims for unemployment insurance continue to trend downward. The Savannah metro area (Chatham, Bryan and Effingham counties) saw 792 unemployment claims in October, down from 933 in October 2014. As noted in the Coastal Empire Economic Monitor, the number of monthly unemployment claims has returned to pre-recession trends.

Payroll employment in the Savannah metro area in October was up 2.3 percent from October 2014. There were significant year-over-year gains in manufacturing and in professional and business services.

Retail trade payroll employment in October was 4 percent higher than a year ago. That might suggest greater confidence among retailers about the holiday shopping season.

Of course, not everyone is sharing equally in the continued economic expansion.

It has been interesting to hear the discussions of poverty throughout the 2015 election season. In her state of the city speech earlier this year, Mayor Edna Jackson cited poverty reduction as a key element of her crime reduction plan, but it was challenger Murray Silver who pushed the issue to the forefront.

Eddie DeLoach, who faces Jackson in the runoff, has also consistently focused on the city’s high poverty rate.

About a quarter of city of Savannah residents live in poverty. That’s worse than the poverty rate 30 years ago, despite phenomenal growth in some areas of the local economy. Consider the ports, tourism, Gulfstream, SCAD, hospitals and so forth.

Whatever happens in the Dec. 1 runoff, let’s hope that poverty remains at the forefront of our civic discussions. In the 20 years that I’ve lived in Savannah, I can’t recall so much concern about poverty, especially among white middle-class residents.

I’ll try to focus some more columns on poverty data in 2016, including the role of housing costs.

For example, according to the U.S. Census, the median rent in Savannah is $883, which is just slightly lower than the national median of $904. But our median household income and per capita income are both about one-third lower than the national rates.

With a clearer grasp of numbers like those, we should be able to find possible prescriptions.


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

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

CITY TALK: Does Savannah need two arenas?

Sat, 11/21/2015 - 11:39pm

An advisory committee recently recommended to Savannah city officials that the current arena at the Civic Center remain in use even after a new state-of-the-art $100 million dollar arena is built less than a mile away.

The recommendation seems so strange and self-contradictory that I’d be inclined to dismiss its importance, especially given the fact that we are years away from breaking ground on the long-planned new arena.

But some influential community members were on the Utilizations of Current Civic Center Sub Committee of the larger Arena Advisory Committee. Also, at a mayoral forum in October, Mayor Edna Jackson said she thought the current arena would still be needed by community groups.

In an article by Eric Curl last week in this newspaper, City Manager Stephanie Cutter reinforced the relevance of the conclusions of the various committees studying the arena project: “We will go through those reports and define what ideas are priorities for the site and begin to work towards a plan to incorporate those ideas.”

So, in the absence of a different vision or new leadership, we have to presume the city does in fact intend to keep the aging and increasingly costly Martin Luther King Jr. Arena even when the new arena is completed.

The committee’s recommendation represents a clear break with the longstanding vision for the existing arena site. It has been generally presumed for years that we would retain Johnny Mercer Theatre and the ballroom spaces in the north half of the Civic Center but would eventually raze the arena and find more productive ways to use all that valuable land in the middle of the Historic District.

The committee’s majority recommendation contains just eight sentences and doesn’t address the central question raised by the document: If the new arena won’t be designed to meet all the needs filled by the current arena, then why even bother building it?

According to the brief document, the current arena would remain in use “to serve primarily locally sponsored events such as, The Black Heritage Festival, The Irish Festival, United Way Kick-Off Luncheon, the Junior League of Savannah Thrift Shop Sale and other events sponsored by local nonprofits.”

Let’s consider that for a moment.

Regular readers know that I have been a consistent supporter of the arena project, and I have been one of the few unwavering defenders of the chosen site near Stiles Avenue, which was selected over a decade ago when Michael Brown was city manager.

Contrary to the rhetoric, the west side location is just several minutes’ walk from hotels, the Georgia State Railroad Museum, SCAD dorms and other important destinations. The location should work beautifully as a downtown expansion area, and, if utilized well, the new arena should be a boon to the adjacent Carver Heights neighborhood.

But what message does the committee’s decision send to the residents of Carver Heights? Those citizens will get the hassles related to concerts and other commercial events at the new arena, but they won’t get any of the advantages of festivals and other daytime events organized by nonprofits.

The committee’s recommendation also claims that the existing arena could be used as a soundstage, which directly contradicts the idea of reserving the space for community events. We can’t very well lure a major film production with the arena as a soundstage and then tell the filmmakers to clear out for a thrift sale.

“Serious consideration should be given prior to razing the existing arena,” writes the committee. “It would be very difficult to build any type of facility of that size again in the historic district.”

But why would we want to build a facility of that size in the Historic District?

If we’re going to invest in a publicly-owned soundstage, why would we want it on some of the most valuable acreage in the city? And, anyway, how many soundstages have tiered seating that can accommodate 6,800?

Curiously, the city’s own website makes the case for the total obsolescence of the current arena.

The city’s “SPLOST FAQ” notes that the arena falls far short of Americans with Disabilities Act standards and that ADA compliance “would require a complete gutting” of the facility. The website also notes the outdated heating and air conditioning facilities, which cost the city $300,000 a year.

The city website adds that “behind-the-house facilities are grossly inadequate” and that the “concourses, aisles and bathrooms are undersized and do not meet modern fire safety codes.”

I’ve written rather extensively about potential uses of the arena site, many of which would benefit quality of life downtown. We could regain residential density, have room for significant commercial development (a grocery store, movie theater, etc.) and reconstruct some of the city’s lost street grid.

Once all that acreage is in private hands, we’d reap the benefits of increased property taxes in perpetuity.

“The revenue benefits for the City are obvious,” writes dissenting committee member Kenneth Zapp, whose comments are included with the final report.


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

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CITY TALK: Election returns reflect changing demographics

Mon, 11/16/2015 - 10:43pm

For more than a decade, I’ve been writing occasional columns about the rapidly changing demographics south of Forsyth Park.

I don’t think the term “gentrification” conveys the nuances or the root causes of the changes, but it is certainly true that we’ve seen a steady outflow of black residents and an influx of white residents over the last couple of decades.

The trends seem to have accelerated as the economic recovery has strengthened, so the estimates from the 2010 U.S. Census are probably already obsolete. As I’ve noted before, city officials actively reinforced the gentrification trends with the demolition of two blocks of affordable housing in Meldrim Row.

I bought a house several blocks south of Forsyth Park in 1996, so I’ve had a front row seat for the changes.

Parts of the Thomas Square neighborhood and adjacent Metropolitan neighborhood were once in the city of Savannah’s First District, but we are now in the Second District, where incumbent Alderwoman Mary Osborne faces an uphill battle in a runoff against challenger Bill Durrence.

The shifting political winds and changes in neighborhood demographics can be seen in the votes cast at two key polling places: Bull Street Baptist Church and Williams Court Apartments.

In her 2011 runoff against Jeff Felser, Mayor Edna Jackson took 68 percent of the vote at Williams Court and 49 percent at Bull Street Baptist.

In the 2015 general election, Jackson managed only 43 percent of the vote at Williams Court and just 32 percent at Bull Street Baptist. Challenger Eddie DeLoach took 26 percent at Williams Court and 37 percent at Bull Street Baptist.

Murray Silver, a true outsider candidate who managed just 12 percent citywide, took 28 percent at Williams Court and 30 percent at Bull Street Baptist. Those were Silver’s strongest precincts in the city.

So what do all these numbers add up to?

The data reflect the broad dissatisfaction south of the Forsyth Park with the current city administration’s poor handling of a host of issues, including the revised alcohol ordinance, traffic calming, the non-existent food truck ordinance, the noise ordinance and, of course, crime.

The voters south of Forsyth Park are broadly liberal, but many have chosen not to support Jackson, the most traditional liberal in the mayoral race.

The neighborhoods south of Forsyth Park are paradoxically brimming with confidence about Savannah’s potential, but there is a sense that the current city government stands in the way.

There obviously aren’t enough votes in the Thomas Square and Metropolitan neighborhoods to determine the outcome of the three races that are going to a runoff, but candidates ignore the changing demographics and the changing expectations for leadership at their peril.


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

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CITY TALK: Checking out the dinner menu at the Collins Quarter

Sat, 11/14/2015 - 11:14pm

The Collins Quarter, which opened in summer 2014, has transformed the intersection of Oglethorpe Avenue and Bull Street.

When there was a retail store at the northwest corner of Bull and Oglethorpe, the entire area was quiet and largely dark at night. The large buildings on the other three corners — the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, Independent Presbyterian Church and the Board of Education — are stately and beautiful, but they don’t create much activity in the evening.

With its expansive windows, welcoming lighting and sidewalk tables, The Collins Quarter enlivens that stretch of Bull Street throughout the day, but the effect is especially felt at night.

At the end of September, The Collins Quarter began serving dinner Tuesday through Saturday. A friend and I recently checked out the impressive menu.

Reservations (912-777-4147) are highly recommended for dinner, in part because the restaurant seems to be making an effort for a somewhat quieter atmosphere than earlier in the day.

If you’re a liquor drinker like I am, you are always faced with a quandary at a spot like The Collins Quarter, which serves only beer and wine. There’s an extensive wine list that includes a huge selection of champagne and a number of champagne cocktails, but we ultimately opted to enjoy beers with dinner.

Beer isn’t my go-to option for a beverage at a fine dining establishment, but it worked just fine with the flavorful dishes on The Collins Quarter’s eclectic but somewhat limited dinner menu.

We started with the salmon tartare ($13) and the shrimp and grits ($14), both of which I would order again. In the former dish, the flavor of the raw salmon is wonderfully complemented by unexpected ingredients like the orange segments and avocado relish.

The shrimp and grits includes a mascarpone polenta and a pleasantly spicy mole sauce that doesn’t overwhelm the other flavors.

The duck entrée ($32) included a duck breast and a duck crepinette, i.e., a sausage. Both the breast and crepinette were larger than I expected, and the breast was cooked just shy of medium rare, which was perfect for me. The meat was accompanied by a small sampling of turnips, bok choy and pickled blueberries.

My dinner companion had the fish of the day (market price), which was a heathy piece of red snapper on the night we dined. I didn’t find the fish itself especially flavorful, but the accompanying dashi and hollandaise enhanced it beautifully.

We certainly didn’t need any dessert after all that food, but we decided to split one anyway. The buttermilk panna cotta ($10) proved excellent for sharing. Highly recommended.

The pacing of the meal and the timing of the service were both excellent.

For two appetizers, two entrees, one dessert and four beers, our bill was nearly $140 before tip (and, yes, I pay my own tabs), so dinner at The Collins Quarter is very much a fine dining affair, though a customer could eat for considerably less money and still have an excellent meal.


Crime stats deteriorating as year ends

In a column a number of weeks ago, I predicted that the final crime statistics for 2015 won’t be all that much different from previous years.

Well, as we approach the end of 2015, the numbers will be worse than I thought they would be.

According to the most recent data posted by the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department, we haven’t seen any substantive change in the rates of reported rapes, commercial robberies, street robberies or commercial burglaries.

But a spate of recent homicides has taken the 2015 year-to-date total to 39, far ahead of the 24 during the same time period in 2014.

We have seen significant increases in reports of other crimes too, especially auto theft. According to the latest data, we’ve had 916 reported auto thefts year-to-date, but we had only 619 at this point in 2014. Every precinct has seen a statistically relevant increase in auto thefts.

Some of the year-over-year numbers aren’t so terrible, but one can see disturbing underlying trends even in those cases.

For example, the number of Part 1 crimes in the downtown precinct in 2015 is almost exactly the same as the number in 2014. That headline number includes year-over-year declines in nonviolent crimes like theft and larceny and significant spikes in violent crimes like street robbery and aggravated assault.


City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via Mail should be sent to 10 East 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
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CITY TALK: Lucky's Market revitalizes key stretch of Abercorn

Mon, 11/09/2015 - 10:07pm

When I finally made my first trip to Lucky’s Market, the new store at 5501 Abercorn St. was humming with activity.

That’s not surprising for a brand new store, but this was on Sunday evening, with blustery winds and rain that made it feel a lot colder than it really was.

The tag line on the Lucky’s Market website is “Organic for the 99%” and the store certainly offers all sorts of organic options.

Lucky’s has a coffee bar and a deli counter that makes sandwiches to order, as well as a pleasant café area.

At the meat counter, you can find beer bratwursts made in-house with Savannah Brown Ale from the Coastal Empire Beer Co. I was especially impressed by one cooler devoted to wild game and ground meats and by the selection of cheeses.

I’ve written often over the years about the changing food landscape in Savannah, which is a reflection of broader changes nationwide. Stores like Lucky’s Market represent an ongoing shift toward fresher and locally sourced foods, and the longstanding chains have shifted their business models to try to retain market share.

It’s certainly interesting to find Lucky’s Market in Savannah at all. The Colorado-based grocer was founded in 2003 and has stores in just 11 states. The Abercorn Street location is the first in Georgia. Lucky’s has only one market right now in Florida, but will be opening soon in three new locations.

Lucky’s Market has also revitalized a key section of Abercorn Street just south of DeRenne Avenue. Immediately adjacent to the store is an underutilized strip of commercial spaces that should transform soon.

It’s especially nice to see that Lucky’s has planted some trees in the parking lot. Sure, trees can affect visibility, but it seems like many of our Southside commercial areas would be more inviting and pleasant if there were more tree cover.

Lucky’s is a short distance from the residential areas north of DeRenne Avenue and west of White Bluff Road, but you won’t see many folks walking to and from the store.

The sidewalks vanish along Abercorn Street well north of the intersection with DeRenne, and there is no welcoming place to cross White Bluff. Even on Sunday evening, there were cars backed up on northbound White Bluff.

Long-planned changes to the DeRenne corridor will likely make traffic move more smoothly and might make pedestrians feel more comfortable, but DeRenne Avenue will probably always be a sharp dividing line between two different eras of city planning.


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
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CITY TALK: Crunching numbers from last week's Savannah city election

Sat, 11/07/2015 - 10:49pm

In 1999, Mayor Floyd Adams ran unopposed for a second term.

In 2007, Mayor Otis Johnson faced five challengers but was still re-elected with about 70 percent of the vote.

Last Tuesday, Mayor Edna Jackson earned just 44 percent of the vote in her re-election bid. Now she will face Eddie DeLoach in a Dec. 1 runoff.

In the 2011 runoff against Jeff Felser, Jackson took 57 percent of the vote, but I don’t think anyone is expecting her to cruise to victory this time around.

Some voters seem to be assuming that DeLoach has the edge because he will pick up most of Murray Silver’s voters. Silver took 12 percent, and it’s hard to imagine many of those folks voting for Jackson.

But will the iconoclastic Silver supporters vote for DeLoach? Or will they just stay home?

And who has the better get-out-the-vote network? Clearly, the edge there has to go to Jackson.

The runoff between DeLoach and Jackson could follow a similar pattern to the runoff between Otis Johnson and Pete Liakakis in 2003. White candidates picked up a majority of the vote in the general election, and Liakakis appeared to be headed for victory in the runoff.

The dynamics of that 2003 race changed, however, once the field had been whittled to two. Johnson prevailed.

I’m not necessarily predicting that Jackson will win the Dec. 1 runoff, but she was the leader in the general election, and she is a black incumbent in a majority black city with a history of re-electing incumbents.

Even if Jackson wins, it’s clear that her political brand has been damaged.

And Jackson isn’t the only member of the current council whose political fortunes have changed since 2011.

Four years ago, Estella Shabazz received 55 percent of the vote against two solid competitors for the fifth district council seat, but last week she took only 52 percent against a first-time candidate.

Mary Ellen Sprague took 63 percent in the fourth district in 2011, but she received only 29 percent last week in her loss to Julian Miller.

In the second district, Mary Osborne received 65 percent in 2011, but she managed only 29 percent last week. She is headed to a runoff against Bill Durrence.

Yes, the second district was significantly redrawn after the 2010 Census, but those changes account for only a small percentage of the sharp decline in Osborne’s support.

Carol Bell was handily re-elected last week as alderman at-large with nearly 59 percent, but in 2011 she racked up 64 percent. Four years ago, she had two challengers, but this year she faced just one political newcomer who announced her candidacy rather late in the game.

It’s possible, maybe even likely, that Jackson will win the runoff against DeLoach. And Osborne still has a chance of winning against Durrence, despite the strong campaign he has run so far.

Still, last Tuesday’s numbers show a clear decline in support for the current city administration. There’s no other way to interpret an incumbent mayor capturing just 44 percent of the vote.

If Jackson prevails, she runs the risk of her entire second term being undermined by lack of public support.

It’s also widely believed that some members of council — perhaps Bell, Johnson and Thomas — have hopes of becoming mayor one day. If so, they can’t afford to spend the next four years on a council that dithers as much as this one.

No matter what happens in December, we are inevitably going to see some changes. Let’s hope those changes are for the better.

You’ve possibly seen some conflicting data on turnout in last week’s election, but there isn’t much of a story. Despite all the social media rants, the 2015 turnout was only 1 percentage point higher than in the 2011 general election.

Will that trend hold in the Dec. 1 runoff?


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
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CITY TALK: Local jobs growth may be moderating

Mon, 11/02/2015 - 10:11pm

September data released recently by the Georgia Department of Labor showed continued job growth in the metro Savannah area, which includes Chatham, Bryan and Effingham counties.

Payroll employment in the area increased 2.2 percent between September 2014 and September 2015. So we are still adding jobs at a rate faster than population growth.

The broad category of professional and business services added an impressive 2,500 jobs over the past year, and manufacturing added 700.

The Savannah metro area unemployment rate fell from 6.8 percent in September 2014 to 5.4 percent in September 2015.

That’s an impressive improvement, but other numbers suggest job growth may be moderating as we near “full employment,” whatever that means in the post-recession economy.

For example, there were 860 initial jobless claims in the Savannah metro area in September, which was on par with the 861 claims in September 2014.

Also, the September estimates showed a significant year-over-year decline in the size of the local labor force. That decline in the number of people working or looking for work contributed to the steep drop in the unemployment rate.

It’s also worth remembering that the numbers for the city of Savannah continue to lag the metro area as a whole. The city’s unemployment rate in September fell to 6.2 percent from 7.9 percent a year earlier, but the decline was primarily due to workers leaving the labor force.


Remembering Robyn Reeder

We have already seen an outpouring of appreciation for Robyn Reeder, who passed away last week after an inspirational, decade-long battle with cancer.

I didn’t know Robyn as well as many others did, but I might have had a better appreciation for her business savvy than most.

When Robyn co-founded Primary Art Supply, Broughton Street was largely a retail wasteland. The store capitalized on the growing enrollment at the Savannah College of Art and Design and proved that Broughton’s narrow storefronts, even those in the middle of blocks, had real value.

As the business grew, Primary began using the second story for retails sales — an aggressive ploy that has worked at relatively few Broughton Street businesses. She later became a key consultant to Blick Art Materials after the retailer bought out Primary.

Her store Civvies New and Recycled Clothing became a local fashion hub.

Robyn was also a tireless supporter of local artists and musicians, many of whom have posted moving tributes on social media in recent days. And she was a musician herself.

A celebration of Robyn’s life will be held from 8 p.m. to midnight on Nov. 12 in the grand ballroom of American Legion Post 135 at 1108 Bull St.


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

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CITY TALK: The cultural arts center as a metaphor for city dysfunction

Sat, 10/31/2015 - 10:45pm

Several recent City Talk columns have explored lingering problems facing Savannah’s leaders as election day looms.

In a recent column, I dealt with the slippery but grim poverty data. The city of Savannah has a higher poverty rate today than 30 years ago, despite massive growth in tourism, port traffic, education, health care and other sectors of the local economy.

A couple of weeks ago, I considered some of the historical crime data and even praised a new page on the city’s website that puts the current spike in violence in clearer context.

But other recent “facts” posted to the city website aren’t quite so useful.

The city has also posted a page of information responding to a straw man question: “Is the City making progress on the Cultural Arts Center?” That’s kind of like asking, “Am I getting older?”

On that page, you can read a litany of details about the proposed Cultural Arts Center, which will be built near the southwest corner of Montgomery Street and Oglethorpe Avenue, but you won’t read about the fact a 500-seat theatre was cut from the final design. A planned black-box space was retained and enlarged through the design process, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of the loss of that larger space.

We need a 500-seat theatre in the downtown area, and it’s easy to imagine a variety of festivals, nonprofit organizations and arts educators making wonderful use of the facility.

Really, how could we spend more than $20 million on a public arts facility and not have a first-class theatre? Or any performance space at all without a stage and fixed seating?

You also won’t read anything about the decision, which was made during the failed tenure of City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney, to abandon a Hall Street site and put the new arts center on some of the most valuable land in the city.

The Cultural Arts Center was originally (and sensibly) considered an economic development tool for a struggling stretch of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

The previous council, anxious to get the project rolling, made no serious objection to Small-Toney’s decision to abandon those vital economic development goals, and the current council didn’t revisit the issue when Small-Toney was forced out.

The Hall Street site was ostensibly abandoned because of inadequate room for parking, in part because there would be such a large theatre.

Of course, the current site will have no parking at all for visitors because of the proximity of municipal garages, and, of course, it will not have the large theatre either.

Who will be most impacted by the cost and difficulty of parking near the new Cultural Arts Center?

Citizens with limited mobility and limited transportation options — including the poor and the elderly — will have a much harder time accessing the current site than the Hall Street location or another one in a less dense neighborhood.

Also, by putting the Cultural Arts Center in such a prime location, we are giving up millions of dollars in future property taxes. Even though the city has already sunk several million into the Montgomery Street site, we could abandon it tomorrow, sell the land for a premium, collect property taxes and eventually come out ahead.

Yes, underground parking at the Hall Street site would have been expensive, but in the long run that certainly would have been a smarter option than abandoning the site entirely and moving the project to prime real estate.

The city website also neglects to mention that the city still owns the Hall Street site. There was a contract on the full city block in early 2015, but that deal fell through.

Sure, deals can fall through, but the city abandoned the Hall Street site in 2010 – five years ago.

I haven’t even mentioned the flawed bidding process or other key elements of the tangled history of the proposed Cultural Arts Center.

In a few years, when and if the center is completed, visitors might enjoy the new space, but the facility isn’t going to meet fundamental goals that we had for it a decade ago.

In my mind, the mess surrounding the arts center is a metaphor for other ongoing city projects and general bureaucratic dysfunction. Because of a lack of vision at the outset, one bad decision leads to another. And then another. And then another.


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

By: Bill DawersByline2: City Talk billdawers@comcast.netSection: BiS
  • This rendering of the city’s proposed cultural arts center shows the entrance from Montgomery Street. The building gained design approval from the Savannah Historic District Board of Review
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Police merger collapse long time coming

Mon, 10/26/2015 - 9:57pm

In an October 2014 column, I joined the chorus of citizens giving advice to Jack Lumpkin, who had just been selected as the new chief of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department.

“Simply put,” I wrote in a column suggesting that Lumpkin encourage City Manager Stephanie Cutter to finalize the police merger quickly, “it looks like the city is going to have to give up something to keep the merger in place — maybe relinquish a measure of control, make a new commitment to service in unincorporated areas or agree to a change in the funding formula.”

“Contentious, protracted negotiations about the merger agreement will make it far more difficult to rebuild the integrity of the department and will likely hurt morale and retention,” I added.

This was not some amazing insight. I was stating things that seemed obvious.

By the time former Chief Willie Lovett was convicted in November 2014, it seemed clear that the city was holding an even weaker hand.

In a February column about Mayor Edna Jackson’s state of the city speech, I noted that Jackson “seemed to place full blame for the slowly collapsing police merger on Chatham County officials.”

I added: “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.”

The city’s negotiating position worsened throughout 2015, as crime increased, police staffing remained problematic and the city’s list of unfinished business grew longer and longer. Curiously, Savannah’s elected and appointed officials never seemed to fully appreciate just how precarious the police merger had become.

And now here we are.

There are ways that the merger could still be saved, but there sure doesn’t seem to be an outcry from residents of unincorporated Chatham County about the merger’s collapse.

Friday’s chaotic “emergency” City Council meeting probably didn’t convince many people that the merger should be salvaged. As I write this, the video of that meeting has not yet been posted to the city website, but I recommend taking a look at it.

I had planned to write a couple more columns before Nov. 3 about major issues facing the city, but family commitments took me to Kentucky last week. Look for a few more thoughts about the election in my upcoming Sunday column, and then I’ll try to catch up with some other business news I’ve neglected in recent weeks.


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

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CITY TALK: Why should we care about Savannah's poverty rate?

Sat, 10/17/2015 - 10:53pm

In response to a question about crime at the recent mayoral forum at Armstrong State University, challenger Eddie DeLoach pivoted to a discussion about poverty.

“It’s been 20 years — 20 years — we’ve had a 26 percent poverty rate,” DeLoach said. He added that the rate in some areas is “as high as 60 percent.”

DeLoach’s numbers echo the language on the Step Up Savannah website, which prominently mentions the current 26 percent poverty rate and includes this line: “While more than a quarter of Savannah’s residents live in poverty, that percentage jumps to 50 percent and higher in some neighborhoods. Such high rates have persisted for more than 30 years.”

The data are more nuanced than suggested by those quotations from DeLoach and from Step Up Savannah, but the general point seems sound. We have a high rate of poverty in Savannah — well over 20 percent — and much of the city’s poverty is concentrated in specific neighborhoods.

Children who live in poverty often have parents who also grew up in impoverished families. It’s a tough cycle to break.

But I’m not writing this column to quibble with Eddie DeLoach’s broadly accurate characterization of poverty in Savannah. I was prompted to do a little digging after Mayor Edna Jackson directly challenged DeLoach’s numbers.

“We’re talking about poverty here like poverty just came to Savannah,” Jackson scoffed.

That didn’t seem a fair characterization at all of the comments that had just been made by DeLoach and by Murray Silver. Poverty may finally be a major campaign issue, but no one has been arguing that we have all just become aware of poverty.

“Your figures are wrong,” Jackson told DeLoach. “Before the recession, the poverty rate in Savannah had dropped tremendously to about 17 percent, but because of the recession, poverty levels have gone back up. And I admit it is too high.”

Obviously, such a sharp disagreement warrants a closer look at the poverty estimates, as well as consideration of the policy ramifications.

So what do the numbers say?

According to U.S. Census estimates, Savannah’s poverty rate in 1980 was 22.4 percent. By 2000, the rate had declined slightly to 21.8 percent. Over those same 20 years, Georgia’s poverty rate declined from 16.6 percent to 13 percent. In other words, during the late 20th century, statewide poverty was clearly declining, but Savannah’s poverty rate barely budged.

The 2010 data showed a sharp increase in poverty. Savannah’s poverty rate jumped from 21.8 percent in 2000 to 25.1 percent in 2010, while the state’s rate went from 13 percent in 2000 to 17.9 percent in 2010.

Keep in mind that the so-called “great recession” ended in summer of 2009, but jobs were still being lost for many months after the recession.

Some sectors have still not recovered all the jobs that were shed in the wake of the downturn, and we’ve also seen a very slow recovery in wages.

And keep in mind that many Savannah workers live in households that fall below the poverty line. As of 2010, according to numbers available through Step Up Savannah, the average annual wage for retail employees in Chatham County was $25,012. The average annual wage for jobs in accommodation and food services was $16,224.

The U.S. Census is now producing five-year poverty estimates through the American Community Survey. The most recent estimate is that 26 percent of Savannahians were living below the poverty line between 2009 and 2013. That number is actually down slightly from the 2008-2012 estimate of 26.6 percent, although it is still significantly higher than the 23.8 percent poverty rate from 2006 to 2010.

So did Savannah’s poverty rate decline “tremendously” before the recession, as Mayor Jackson said? Well, it all depends on the definition of “tremendously.” I could find no numbers confirming that the rate ever fell as low as 17 percent, although it seems safe to say the rate might have dropped to around 20 percent after 2000.

Jackson is correct that the poverty rate rose during the recession, but the trend lines suggest that our current poverty rate is probably close to 25 percent even though the recession ended six years ago.

In simpler terms, Savannah’s poverty rate in 2015 is higher than it was in 1980.

Many powerful people in Savannah, including the members of the current city administration, seem to think such grim numbers will remain the norm. That belief limits policy options. We can boost the economy in any way possible so that some money trickles down and we can provide services that ensure basic needs are met, but we aren’t going to make much of a long-term dent in the poverty rate.

Many likely voters in next month’s election are not ready to throw in the towel and accept that our poverty rate must remain so high. That position demands more ambitious policies designed to break the cycle of entrenched inter-generational poverty.


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

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CITY TALK: New push to fix Tybee road in wake of tragedy

Mon, 10/12/2015 - 9:34pm

As many of you already know, there was another tragedy on the road to Tybee. I didn’t know Susan Allen Bartoletti, but obviously extend my condolences to her family and friends.

Bartoletti passed away last Thursday night after a wreck on the Bull River Bridge, which has seen its share of tragedies in recent years.

Since her passing, the long-simmering frustration about the dangerous road has given way to outright anger and calls for public action to make U.S. 80 safer.

As I write this, the Facebook group #fixhwy80now #4lanetybeeroad has more than 4,000 members, and the page is brimming with energy.

The second half of the name of that Facebook group — #4lanetybeeroad — reflects the general public sentiment for four lanes from Tybee Island to the mainland.

But it’s worth keeping in mind that a four lane road with new bridges at Bull River and at Lazaretto Creek would cost far more than $100 million and could take years of environmental review.

Some will immediately object to any concern about costs. How can you put a price tag on human life?

The truth is we make life-and-death decisions all the time in our government budgets. Officials are often well aware of projects that would make roads safer, but they don’t have the resources to act.

A proposed four-lane road to Tybee Island was taken off the table a number of years ago because of the extreme cost. Tybee has a resident population of just 3,000, after all, and throughout much of the year there is no justification for two lanes each way.

And is a four-lane road, which would encourage vastly higher speeds, even the safest option?

If you go to the Metropolitan Planning Commission website, you can take a look at the “U.S. 80 Bridges Replacement Study,” which was completed in 2012. The plan would dramatically improve the road by adding safe shoulders and multi-use paths to the bridges, creating usable shoulders between the bridges and adding turn lanes at critical points.

The details of that plan were released after the 2012 TSPLOST vote, but the general concepts were already being discussed beforehand. That 1 percent sales tax would have created a timetable and put money in the pipeline for improving Highway 80, but voters throughout the region — including 57 percent in Chatham County — soundly defeated the tax.

I don’t have space here to go into all the funding issues, so I’ll just say that it seems unlikely to me that the state of Georgia will put improvements to the Tybee road on the fast track.

If we want to do something, we’ll likely have to come up with the funding ourselves, and that likely means supporting other projects that are valued by other area residents.


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

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CITY TALK: Taking the pulse of the downtown Savannah restaurant scene

Sat, 10/10/2015 - 10:32pm

The restaurant business is notoriously difficult, but we’re seeing a restaurant renaissance in Savannah right now as savvy entrepreneurs, talented chefs and other industry professionals join forces.

It’s a trend we’ve been covering for years here at City Talk, and there is no sign of it slowing down. Just consider some of the recent developments.

At long last, 39 Rue de Jean seems poised to open its doors at 605 West Oglethorpe Ave. on the ground floor of the Embassy Suites.

The French restaurant’s Facebook page recently suggested an October opening date. That’s surely good news for fans of the existing 39 Rue de Jean in Charleston.

Jesse Blanco wrote recently in this paper about the new restaurant Atlantic, which will open in 2016 at the corner of Drayton Street and Victory Drive. Jesse also wrote about the opening of The Naked Dog and Reality Bites Bakery at 1514 Bull St. and about the new Maine-ly Dawgs Cafè at 205 East 37th St.

Many of us have been keeping an eye on the extensive renovations of the former Bank of America branch at the corner of Bull and 39th streets. That establishment is the latest project of the restaurant group Ele and the Chef.

The Collins Quarter at the corner of Oglethorpe Avenue and Bull Street recently launched its long-anticipated dinner service.

And several other ambitious new restaurants are in some stage of development. Those projects promise we’ll see exciting new openings throughout 2016 and into 2017.

How many more restaurants can Savannah support?

With tourism still on the rise, with the local population growing and with the area economy strong, we have every reason to expect continued growth in demand.

Savannah’s restaurant scene might still be a long way from getting the respect accorded cities like Charleston and New Orleans, but we’re certainly headed in the right direction.

Can current leadership make any headway on crime?

Over the last 15 years, I’ve often written about crime.

I’ve cited all sorts of crime statistics over the years and discussed various crime-fighting strategies.

For the most part, however, I’ve written about crime from my perspective as a resident for almost 20 years of the Thomas Square neighborhood.

My house is several blocks south of Forsyth Park, so I have for years walked and biked through portions of the Victorian District with high crime rates. When I first moved to the neighborhood, there was a pocket of blatant street-level drug dealing and prostitution a few blocks east on Habersham Street.

A few blocks to the west is the Jefferson Street corridor, which is legendary for its street-level criminality.

I have written often about official inaction to address obvious trouble spots like these, but I have not often speculated publicly about the roots of that inaction. I have always assumed Savannah’s history of tolerance for street-level crime in certain neighborhoods is the result of a pervasive civic cynicism compounded by institutional racism.

Sure, we were all aware that corruption could be a contributing factor to Savannah’s high crime rate, but the RICO civil suit filed recently by four former police officers suggests that corruption might have played a larger role than I feared.

No, we don’t know what will happen to the lawsuit, but I still recommend that concerned citizens take the time to read the text. Take special note of the sections that describe how individual drug squad officers were allegedly tipping off dealers who were being targeted for investigation and arrest.

Chief Jack Lumpkin, who has been on the job for less than a year, has frequently mentioned the problem of open-air drug markets, but Savannah’s political leaders have rarely acknowledged the problem as frankly as Lumpkin has.

Of course, many of our elected and appointed leaders have been in positions of power for a long time. Can we really expect that they will understand the depth of the problem when they’ve spent so many years minimizing or ignoring the most obvious forms of criminal behavior?

I don’t know what will happen in the November election, but there is a fair chance we will end up re-electing most of the incumbents running for Savannah City Council.

What happens then?

More empty rhetoric about fighting crime, even as shootings increase and police staffing further deteriorates? Or will the election process itself compel the city leadership to act more quickly to support Chief Lumpkin’s initiatives?


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

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CITY TALK: City launches web page to fight bad info

Mon, 10/05/2015 - 9:16pm

Last week, the city of Savannah launched Just the FAQs, “a new web feature to help answer pressing questions the public may have about decisions the city has made, or services it offers.”

You can find the new web page at

According to the press release, “Just the FAQs will respond to misinformation or rumors about city issues that often circulate quickly and can be taken as fact.”

First, I should say creation of the site was a good idea. I see some crazy assertions these days on social media, and if I were in the city administration, I would want to make relevant facts as easy to find as possible.

But the timing of the launch makes the effort look politically motivated. With an election a month away and with widespread frustration about government inaction on a wide range of issues, some incumbents might be thrilled to see a more vigorous defense of city decisions and priorities.

It’s also possible appointed city officials might be under pressure to prove they are doing the jobs they are paid to do.

I was struck by the historical crime data on the new web page, especially the fact that there were 60 homicides in Savannah and Chatham County in 1991. For the past decade, we’ve been averaging about half that number.

The web page says officials are not trying to “minimize the crime problem in Savannah,” and I’m not trying to minimize it either. It’s just good for readers to know more about Savannah’s violent history.

The page about crime even details the rise in aggravated assaults with guns in 2014 and 2015, so it’s not as if city officials are trying to dodge the bullet, so to speak.

Still, as with other topics covered at Just the Faqs, I’m struck by the information that is not there.

The site uses the word “drugs” just one time, and there is no intimation of the history of almost unchecked drug sales in many neighborhoods. That’s a point Chief Jack Lumpkin routinely points out.

The words “Lovett” and “corruption” are also missing.

By the way, if you want a clearer sense of the pervasive corruption within the Counter Narcotics Team, you might want to read the RICO civil suit filed last week by four former Savannah-Chatham police officers.

The site mentions “fully staffing” the force, but it does not discuss how the department became so poorly staffed in the first place.

So voters have plenty of reason to be angry — livid, disgusted, insert the adjective of your choice — about crime even if they have a level-headed grasp of the data.


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



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CITY TALK: Is consolidation of Savannah, Chatham County on the way? Is it a good idea?

Sat, 10/03/2015 - 10:34pm

At the forum sponsored by the Jaycees last week, Savannah’s mayoral candidates were asked whether they favor a consolidated city-county government. It’s a topic that seems to be coming up more and more in public discussions.

Challenger Murray Silver said he is aware of a five-year plan to consolidate the city of Savannah and Chatham County.

If such a plan exists, Mayor Edna Jackson must be out of the loop. If she were aware of any such efforts behind the scenes, she surely would have come up with a better answer to the question than the one she gave.

Jackson said that she opposes consolidation because of the struggle to finalize the police merger, which seemed a weak analogy to me. If we decide to consolidate the city and county governments, we wouldn’t have two governments to haggle over details for a decade after the merger has taken place.

A consolidated city-county government would, in theory, save tax dollars by eliminating duplicative services, departments and payrolls, and we’d possibly see a reduced property tax burden, especially for those of us who live within the city limits.

I’ve heard many area residents say black leaders would never allow consolidation because it would dilute the power of black voters within the city limits, but maybe Al Scott’s 2012 election as chairman of the county commission has changed that dynamic.

Still, the more I think about consolidation, the less I like the idea. Maybe I’ve just lived here too long.

If we had a consolidated government, what would happen if we elected weak leaders who chose a poor manager? Then we’d have a clunker for everyone who currently resides in either the city limits or the unincorporated county.

With two governments, we at least have a chance that one of them will get things right.

Also, I know many residents of the unincorporated county do not share the priorities of city residents who favor things like traffic calming, greater protections for bicyclists and pedestrians, the removal of the

I-16 flyover and a host of other policies that would promote quality of life in urban areas.

And many of us who live near the walkable center of the city do not share the spending, policy and quality of life priorities of those who live in more suburban areas.

Could we actually find a way to respect the priorities of our fellow residents in a consolidated government?

Getting rid of the tour guide test

Savannah city officials are planning to drop the requirement that local tour guides pass a history test as part of the licensing process.

I wrote quite a bit about the issue of the test after a group of tour guides, supported by the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice, mounted a court challenge to the city’s licensing requirements.

The tour guides’ lawsuit was filed in November 2014 in U.S. District Court. In December 2014, city officials revised the tour guide ordinance to eliminate a required physical exam, but the written test was left in place.

The majority of readers of this column seemed to favor the retention of the history test, even though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found there was no evidence that a similar test in Washington, D.C., actually furthered any of the stated goals. That court also found that the test was an unnecessary abridgment of free speech.

A separate appellate court found that New Orleans could continue to require a written test for tour guides. The Supreme Court has not taken up the case, so we are left with conflicting rulings.

It was interesting as the controversy percolated to hear history test proponents defend the requirement even as they sighed about inaccurate information that is dispensed to tourists.

I’m not sure about the internal decision making at City Hall, so it’s possible officials decided the written test didn’t actually accomplish anything, that the testing process required too much staff time or that it wouldn’t be worth fighting a lawsuit the city might eventually lose.

While many defended the idea of the test, I found myself among those who thought it was an abridgment of free speech and an example of unnecessary city bureaucracy.

The Tourism Leadership Council is working on a voluntary certification process for tour guides — an idea that was also discussed in this column many months ago. Other organizations, like the Savannah Tour Guide Institute, could also step forward with certification processes.

But will “certification” make any difference to consumers? After all, the average tourist now has a smartphone with which she can confirm facts on the spot. Sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp incentivize quality tours.

And let’s give the hard-working guides a little credit here. Most of them want to give accurate information, and most of them want Savannah’s visitors to leave with a better grasp of the city’s rich fabric.


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

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CITY TALK: Continued jobs growth predicted for Savannah

Mon, 09/28/2015 - 8:57pm

According to estimates released recently by the Georgia Department of Labor, Georgia’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell to 5.9 percent in August, down slightly from the 6 percent rate in July and down markedly from the 7.1 percent rate in August 2014.

Thirty-eight states had lower rates in August, but it’s still good to see the data headed in the right direction.

The state had robust job growth over the last year — a solid 2 percent increase in payroll employment between August 2014 and August 2015. Private sector employment actually increased 2.6 percent, but the final number was restrained by declining public employment.

The Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 2.3 percent payroll employment growth between August 2014 and August 2015. That’s considerably faster than the rate of population growth.

The manufacturing sector added an estimated 700 jobs in the Savannah area over the past year, as did retail trade. The category of transportation, warehousing and utilities added 500 jobs.

But those gains pale beside the annual increase of 3,300 jobs in the broad sector of professional and business services.

By contrast, employment in leisure and hospitality added just 100 jobs over the past year. Statewide, the leisure and hospitality sector added 10,100 payroll jobs, so the local estimate is something of an outlier.

Government employment and construction employment declined over the past year, but those were rare weak spots in this upbeat data.

The preliminary estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor put the Savannah metro area unemployment rate at 5.6 percent in August. That number, which is not adjusted for seasonality, represents a dramatic decline from 7.6 percent in August 2014.

The only worrisome note in the data is the year-over-year decline in the total size of the labor force in the Savannah area. I noted that issue in last month’s estimates as well. I’d like to see a few more months of data before getting too worried about the decline, however.

The unemployment rate in the city of Savannah was 6.5 percent in August, dramatically lower than the 8.8 percent unemployment rate in August 2014.

Such vigorous employment numbers would typically work in favor of incumbents in the upcoming mayoral and aldermanic races in Savannah, but crime has developed into the most important issue.

The unemployment rate varies widely across Georgia. The estimated August rate was over 8 percent in 30 of the state’s 159 counties. Many of those counties that are lagging the recovery have low populations and are located in middle and south Georgia.


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

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CITY TALK: Will slow pace of change become Savannah election issue?

Sat, 09/26/2015 - 10:51pm

The Savannah City Council held a three-hour workshop session on the morning of Sept. 17 and then had a two-hour regular session in the afternoon.

All council sessions like these are televised, and all eventually appear on the web for on-demand viewing. If you’re a regular spectator of these official public meetings, you already know the bureaucratic tedium is punctuated by moments of great seriousness, of farce, even of passion.

In the most recent workshop, Chief Jack Lumpkin updated the council on a wide variety of issues involving the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department’s attempts to return the force to full staffing and to employ new strategies to fight crime.

After a lengthy discussion among council members about various ways to fight crime, Alderman At-Large Tom Bordeaux, who is not seeking re-election, used some surprisingly frank language about political inaction.

“I think this brainstorming session is great,” Bordeaux said. But a moment later he added,

“This is what in college we would call a bull session.

“We’re talking like we’re people running for office, not like we’re people who are serving in office. We have the authority now,” Bordeaux said, tapping the conference table in time to his increasingly insistent words. “We have the power now.

“We are three and a half years into this term, and we’re talking like ‘this is what I will do if I get elected.’ Well dang it, we’re already elected, and this is silly.

“It’s a waste of this man’s time,” he said, pointing at Lumpkin. “It’s a waste of his staff’s time. He’s got other things to do to put some of this into effect, and he’s standing here listening to us brainstorm.”

Bordeaux said “brainstorm” with special frustration.

Bordeaux then noted that he and the rest of council voted for a budget that did not contain money for some of the initiatives aldermen apparently want.

Later in the meeting, Alderman Tony Thomas appeared frustrated with the slow pace of fully staffing the police force and with the pace of implementation of pay raises for police officers. Much of that frustration was directed at City Manager Stephanie Cutter.

I’ve been writing about crime in Savannah off and on for 15 years, and this could be a watershed moment of widespread discontent when real change is possible.

Or not.

I’ve written in recent weeks about various issues that might be on voters’ minds as we approach the citywide elections in November, and crime is clearly at the forefront. But Bordeaux’s comments about the slow pace of change certainly resonated with me on multiple levels.

Yes, we are three and half years into the term of the current City Council, and the aldermen still have not approved an amended ordinance allowing chickens and other animals. The issue was publicly debated in 2011, and Chatham County changed its ordinance in 2012.

In 2012, Alderman Carol Bell told city staff she wanted to see a food truck ordinance, and we’ve just this month received a first draft, one so restrictive it will scare away would-be entrepreneurs.

City staffers have been revising the alcohol ordinance since January 2013.

The proposed Cultural Arts Center ­— first approved by voters a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — remains mired in controversy, and, amazingly, the city still owns a Waters Avenue strip mall, an entire vacant city block on Hall Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and another large lot on MLK where the city itself demolished a historic and architecturally significant African American-owned pharmacy.

Continued inaction on policy and property issues like these is hurting the city’s economy and doing real damage to the neighborhoods and to the business owners who are most affected.

Eight of nine incumbents on Savannah City Council, including Mayor Edna Jackson, are running for re-election. At least publicly, those incumbents have repeatedly praised the work of the city manager and her staff, so the elected leaders don’t seem too troubled by the fact that so many problems have remained unresolved for the past three and a half years.

I suppose a cynic might even be happy with some of the current political inaction. By every measure I’ve seen, the Savannah area economy is growing. Payroll employment is up, and the unemployment rate is down. Why risk messing things up by, you know, actually doing something?

Of course, that’s not a tenable position, not with crime up and with the police force woefully understaffed.

And not with so many business owners and residents negatively affected by such slow decision making.


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

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CITY TALK: Residential development on fringes of downtown

Mon, 09/21/2015 - 9:49pm

Residential development is planned for the north side of the 300 block of West Gwinnett Street on the southern edge of the Landmark Historic District.

The project has been scrutinized at the most recent meetings of the Historic District Board of Review, and a variety of changes are in the works in response to concerns about the massing of the buildings, design details and other issues.

After that wrangling concludes, we will eventually see townhouses facing Montgomery, Gwinnett and Jefferson streets, with shared parking accessible via Hall Lane.

It’s a full city block — 240 feet by 130 feet. The site has been home to Bowyer Motors for decades.

If you’ve been following development in the greater downtown area, you know this project is big news.

Most obviously, these new homes will increase downtown residential density in ways that are in keeping with historical patterns.

If we want to nurture neighborhood businesses, we need residents in those neighborhoods.

We are also seeing the continued erosion of a neighborhood stigma. Jefferson Street has long been considered a dividing line in much the way Price Street was seen as a dividing line on the east side.

And this is another example of the evolution of the Montgomery Street corridor.

Automobile related uses sprung up on Montgomery Street in the second half of the 20th century, but those uses are becoming less viable as the land value rises and as residential demand increases.

The various auto lots and related businesses on Montgomery Street might be thriving businesses, but at some point the landowners will see greater value in more intense development.

And as we see more developments like this one on West Gwinnett Street, new investors will begin scrutinizing the underutilized properties that dot Montgomery Street farther south.

There will probably be some bureaucratic problems as developers target the large lots on Montgomery Street, and we might need different guidelines for “campus style” residential developments.

I suspect that we will also see hoteliers move into the corridor. In a few years, that prospect won’t seem as crazy as it sounds now to some of you.

As development pressures increase, we certainly need clearer historic protections for the neighborhoods along Montgomery Street. The Bowyer Motors site is just half a mile north of the historic Meldrim Row cottages that the city of Savannah demolished for a sprawling, suburban style police precinct.

By the way, it’s worth adding that economic development on Montgomery Street is also hampered by the lack of southbound traffic because of the patterns created by the Interstate 16 flyover. That’s another issue that needs long-term consideration as this long-neglected part of the city evolves.


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

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CITY TALK: Savannah's draft food-truck ordinances opens some doors, closes others

Sat, 09/19/2015 - 10:29pm

City of Savannah officials have been hosting a series of public meetings about a proposed ordinance that would dramatically expand the options for food trucks in Savannah.

According to city officials, Savannah has 16 active food trucks. Those include trucks operated by the dining services at Armstrong State University and the Savannah College of Art and Design and those operated by various restaurants.

But, under current law, food truck operations are severely restricted, and we don’t have anything like the food truck cultures you’ll find in cities throughout the Southeast, including Charleston and Atlanta.

Last week, I attended the eighth of the public meetings. There was a low turnout at in the fellowship hall at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, but several entrepreneurs were on hand, as were representatives from the city and from the Chatham County Health Department.

The city has scheduled another public meeting for 5:30 p.m. Sept. 22 at Jacob G. Smith Elementary, 210 Lamara Drive.

Also, as of late last week, the city’s draft ordinance had not been posted to the web. From the presentation to members of City Council several weeks ago, I assumed that an ordinance would be drafted after the series of public sessions, but a draft already exists.

The process seems unnecessarily convoluted. If members of the public are being asked to respond to the city’s plans regarding food trucks, wouldn’t it make sense for everyone to have easy access to the existing draft?

I’ll dig more deeply into the draft ordinance soon, so for this column I’ll just make a few observations about where we are in the process.

First, it’s worth stating that city staffers are serious about crafting an effective, detailed ordinance that could allow food trucks to thrive.

Second, we are nowhere near the finish line. It was suggested at the recent City Council workshop session that the elected leaders might have an ordinance in front of them

before the end of the year. That looks highly unlikely.

Now let’s dig into some of the difficult details.

If you can find the proposed map where food trucks would be allowed (it’s not on the web right now either), keep in mind that the ordinance would only allow the trucks on private property, except when permits have been obtained for special events.

Charleston has both franchised and non-franchised spaces in the public right of way for mobile food vendors, but our draft ordinance has no such provisions.

By restricting food trucks to private property, we would severely limit their use in redevelopment corridors. For example, you’ll find tons of on-street parking on portions of Montgomery Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, but food trucks would be confined to leasing spaces on privately owned parking lots.

If a brick-and-mortar business meets only the minimum requirement for off-street parking, then that business could not logically lease spaces to food trucks.

There has been considerable discussion about the possibility of food trucks in a public space like Daffin Park, but food trucks would be prohibited under the current draft unless a special event permit were secured.

The current draft also says food trucks must conform to relevant sign ordinances. At the meeting I attended, Alicia Scott from the Citizen Office suggested food trucks in Savannah might not be allowed to sport colorful designs like those found routinely in other cities.


Also, the draft would limit the number of food trucks in any one place, even on private property, so we wouldn’t see the food truck clustering that you’ll find in some cities.

The Alpharetta Food Truck Alley, which has more than 11,000 fans on Facebook, features seven or eight trucks every Thursday evening, but we won’t have anything like that if the language of the current draft survives.

Also, it’s worth noting that the proposed ordinance would essentially be a revision of the zoning ordinance, but it’s clear city officials have not coordinated their efforts with the staff at the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

Would food trucks be written into the code as an accessory use? Would food trucks be implemented via an overlay district?

And what happens when and if the city implements the NewZO ( — the new zoning ordinance that the MPC began drafting in 2007?

I haven’t heard any public objections to provisions in the food-truck ordinance that would protect brick-and-mortar restaurants from predatory competition, but the current draft places many other limits on food truck operations.

If we want to have a thriving food truck culture in Savannah, we will almost certainly need a less restrictive ordinance than the one currently being considered.


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

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CITY TALK: Savannah highlighted at its best — and worst

Mon, 09/14/2015 - 9:57pm

Saturday was a remarkable day in Savannah.

The Savannah Philharmonic kicked off its season in grand style at the Lucas Theatre with featured soloist Joseph Conyers, a Savannah native who is a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Despite the rain, Savannah Pride attracted thousands to Forsyth Park.

The Tunnel To Towers 5K Run & Walk was a huge success.

Revival Fest showcased 14 excellent bands at the Georgia State Railroad Museum.

The Sand Gnats wrapped up their time in Savannah on Saturday night.

Yes, it’s sad to see the Gnats move to Columbia, S.C., but a college league is coming to Grayson Stadium next summer. Maybe we will make some smart investments that will keep the historic stadium in use for many years to come.

Since I’ve been covering so much music in recent years, I opted to spend my Saturday at Revival Fest, but it was easy to sense the community support behind those other events.

We are also on the cusp of the hectic fall festival season, which seems to bring a new event every week. The 34th annual Savannah Jazz Festival kicks off on Sept. 20.

For many of us, Savannah is a spiritually fulfilling and culturally rich place to live. And, most of the time, the living is easy.

If you have a modest amount of disposable income, some mobility and any interests at all, you can be involved in the life of the city.

Also on Saturday, another tragic shooting left two men dead.

No city is perfect, and Savannah is just one of many crime-ridden cities in America with stark economic, racial and cultural divides.

But Savannah’s relatively small size and unique geography make those divisions even starker.

Of course, violence is nothing new in Savannah. Violent crime has been on the rise, but the final crime stats for 2015 will probably pale beside the more violent years of the 1990s.

I don’t say that to encourage complacency or resignation. I’m just hopeful that citizens and voters will have some perspective.

No one is going to be able to change Savannah overnight. It will likely take years of crime enforcement and prevention initiatives before we see significant progress in reducing the number of senseless shootings.

Every few years, crime concerns dominate public discourse for a while before eventually being pushed to the back burner.

It’s easy to be cynical about change, but maybe we’ve hit a critical moment — an upcoming election, a strong police chief, heightened public awareness — when real progress is possible.


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

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

CITY TALK: Ordinary Pub brings casual dining, drinking to Broughton St.

Sat, 09/12/2015 - 11:39pm

The Ordinary Pub at 217 1/2 West Broughton St. has been open for two months, but the business just got its liquor license recently. That news prompted a friend and me to check out the new spot.

The Ordinary Pub ( is underneath Free People and Urban Outfitters in a space formerly occupied by Taco Abajo and T-Rex Mex. The Ordinary is using more of the basement than T-Rex Mex used but less than Taco Abajo.

The pub has a pleasant, somewhat rustic dining area at the base of the main staircase, with a separate bar area over to the side.

We decided to eat at the bar. The excellent local duo Wood and Steel was performing several feet away from us, but the sound level was still perfect for conversation. There are a couple of unobtrusive televisions in the bar too, so I was able to keep up with Roger Federer’s U.S. Open match.

We both opted for burgers, which are made from an exceptionally flavorful combination of Angus beef and pork. The bacon pesto burger ($13) includes a fried green tomato and mozzarella in addition to a healthy portion of woven bacon.

The bun was barely strong enough to support such a rich burger, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. A side of pickled vegetables was good too, but the flavor was so sharp I didn’t eat the entire dish.

Other tempting items on the dinner menu include pork belly sliders, shrimp & grits, a flank steak roulade and a vegetarian pesto pasta. All the dinner items – including appetizers, salads and entrees – are priced between $9 and $16. The lunch menu, which also starts around $9, includes a few more sandwiches.

The Ordinary Pub has a nice selection of beers on tap, including a number of local and regional options.

Downtown Savannah doesn’t have a large number of businesses in basements, but there are subterranean successes within a few blocks of The Ordinary Pub. Jazz’d Tapas Bar, Alligator Soul and The Bar Bar have been part of the downtown landscape for many years.

Of course, The Bar Bar is in the middle of City Market and has especially prominent entrances. Jazz’d is adjacent to Ellis Square and highly visible from the street. Alligator Soul is in a less visible spot, but the fine dining establishment has employed excellent marketing over the years.

So one challenge for The Ordinary Pub will be to lure patrons from areas with more nighttime foot traffic. And if the pub wants to capitalize on tourism, the business will need to lure visitors who are shopping on Broughton Street and staying in the hotels.

A casual, comfortable spot like The Ordinary Pub could develop into a hangout for locals, especially those who want to take a break from the hustle and bustle above ground.


The glacial pace of city government

I was doing a little background reading on Savannah’s proposed new alcohol ordinance, and I ran across a Savannah Morning News article – “Savannah looks to rewrite liquor laws” – written by Lesley Conn (remember her?) in January 2013.

Here comes the punchline. According to that article, city officials “hope to have revisions before City Council for approval in about two months.”

The two-month timetable was probably never reasonable, especially since city officials seem to have increased the reach of the ordinance rewrite. But did it really need to take 20 months before a first draft of the new ordinance was released to the public?

That draft needed major revision, but a year has passed since that initial release.

Booze is big business in Savannah, and dozens of establishments will be impacted by any changes, but we are approaching three years since city staff first announced that revisions were in progress.

As has been discussed often in this paper, we have seen major delays on other important initiatives, like the planned Cultural Arts Center and the sale of the city-owned shopping center on Waters Avenue.

Voters are rightly concerned about crime as local elections loom, but there are plenty of other issues on the table. I don’t know if we can expect any substantive movement on anti-crime initiatives when the city bureaucracy so often seems to move at such a glacial pace.

The city’s current effort to craft a food truck ordinance sounds easy in comparison to more complex initiatives, so it will be interesting to see if we will actually have an ordinance in place before the end of the year as officials have suggested.

I hope that the candidates – both challengers and incumbents – will try to get to the roots of the delays and dysfunction. Are the problems primarily attributable to personnel? Staffing? Funding? Communication? Lack of vision?

If we expect anything of substance to happen over the next four years, we need answers to those questions.


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

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