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Updated: 1 hour 21 min ago

CITY TALK: New ordinances will help entrepreneurs

Mon, 08/22/2016 - 9:54pm

Last week brought some welcome news for some Savannah entrepreneurs.

Ending years of wrangling and lengthy bureaucratic delays, Savannah city council approved new alcohol and food truck ordinances at last week’s meeting.

There’s not anything cutting edge about the ordinances, but they give business owners and investors opportunities that exist in most other cities with which Savannah competes for new young residents and for visitors.

In 2011, as we were still struggling to recover from the recession, I expressed some doubts about the likelihood that food trucks would succeed in Savannah, but even then I joined many others in calling for a workable ordinance.

Now, in 2016, with the local economy in solid shape, we could develop a vibrant food truck culture with this new ordinance that provides a variety of options for finding success.

Our multi-faceted new alcohol ordinance could also pave the way for new investment and, more specifically, performance venues.

Consider Macon’s Cox Capitol Theatre, which a fair number of Savannah folks visited during the recent Bragg Jam. The old downtown movie theater can be configured with some reserved seating for live performances, but most shows offer general admission tickets with plenty of standing room in front of the stage.

The Cox, which has a capacity of 650, hosts a variety of public performances, including some that are open to all ages and some that are limited to patrons 18 and up. The venue serves alcohol but is not a restaurant.

In other words, the Cox has a straightforward, common sense business model, but that model is currently illegal in Savannah.

In addition to expanding the possibilities of new event venues, the new ordinance will give bars the option to allow patrons over 18 into live performances.

However, it’s not at all clear to me at this point how many bars will apply for the special permit. Adults aged 18 to 20 generate less revenue than older patrons, and some bar managers and owners might decide that their current business model is working just fine.

On the other hand, music promoters know when they’re dealing with acts with special appeal to 18- to 20-year olds, so we might see some venues apply for the special permit even if they only rarely book shows for people 18 and older.

So we’re finally out from under a decade of nightmarish city bureaucracy that unnecessarily limited the freedom of legal adults over 18 and hurt small businesses.

The adoption of the new food truck and alcohol ordinances is certainly good news for the city, and it’s also good news for incoming city manager Rob Hernandez, who will have two fewer things on his plate.


City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. 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

CITY TALK: What is a 'living wage' in Savannah?

Sun, 08/21/2016 - 12:00am
Throughout last year’s city elections and into 2016, we’ve seen considerable public debate about prevailing wages in Savannah, especially in the leisure and hospitality sector. You can find a petition calling for raising the local minimum wage to $15 an hour, but the petition had fewer than 100 signatures even after several days of social media sharing. As a practical matter, municipalities in Georgia are forbidden by state law from raising the minimum wage for private sector workers. The official state minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, although most workers at least make the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Recently, the small city of Clarkston in DeKalb County mandated a $15 minimum wage for its employees. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Clarkston’s new ordinance will only directly impact three city workers. Even if public officials can’t mandate higher private sector wages, they can perhaps move the dial, if only slightly. Economic development efforts can focus on companies that pay better wages, for example. Still, given current state law, there isn’t all that much that can be done at the local level to raise wages, so for this column I’m going to skirt the usual minimum wage debate and focus on the local “living wage.” How much do workers need to make per hour to live decently in Savannah? In exploring the answer to that question, I’ll be using a living wage calculator published by researchers at MIT ( that quantifies the typical expenses and wages for counties and metropolitan statistical areas across America. The MIT calculator uses a straightforward definition of living wage: “the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support their family, if they are the sole provider and are working full-time (2080 hours per year).” For one adult living alone, the MIT calculator pegs $10.87 an hour as a living wage in the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties). That estimate includes annual expenses of $3,011 for food, $2,111 for medical care, $7,596 for housing, $4,290 for transportation and $2,146 in other categories. So that one adult needs a pre-tax annual income of $22,602, which works out to $10.87 per hour. This does not suggest that a single adult could live comfortably on that income, and it’s easy to imagine how some sort of crisis could be financially devastating. I’m especially struck by the fact that the calculator assumes “other” expenses of less than $6 per day. On the other hand, a frugal person could find ways to reduce some of those typical expenses, especially transportation. It might be typical for adults to spend an average of nearly $12 per day on transportation, but that’s far more than I’ve spent on average over the last decade. Of course, in some individual years, I’ve spent more on transportation than is typical, but I’ve fortunately had credit and savings to cover expensive repairs and other transportation needs. A worker who is barely making a living wage might have no way of cushioning the shocks of one-time expenses. So far, I’ve just been talking about adults with no dependents, but when children are added to the picture, the local living wage rises dramatically. According to the MIT calculator, a single parent with one child would need to make $22.47 an hour to have a living wage in the Savannah metro area. If there are two adults who work full-time and have one child, the living wage falls to $12.42 an hour, which translates into a pre-tax household annual income of $51,672. These estimates for the Savannah area are almost identical to Georgia’s statewide averages, but there is significant variation among places within the state. For example, in the Atlanta metro area, the living wage for a single adult is $11.33 an hour, but in the Macon metro area the living wage for a single adult is $9.89 an hour. For now, arguments about raising the minimum wage in Georgia are purely hypothetical. Our elected state leaders are nowhere near serious consideration of changing anything, although it’s possible that we’ll see continued scrutiny of wages and an eventual shift in political will. I hope that we will see continued emphasis on the problems of poverty in Savannah. While it seems clear that many local residents will continue to qualify for government programs that supplement their incomes, we can still set higher goals for our community. One of those goals could be to get as many jobs as possible to pay $11 an hour, which is near the lower bound of the local living wage for a single full-time worker.   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.netFront headline: CITY TALK: What is a ‘living wage’ in Savannah?Section: BiS
  • Bill Dawers
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: New city manager seems a good fit

Mon, 08/15/2016 - 9:11pm

Nothing is official, but Savannah should have a new city manager on the job by early October.

If you follow the news, you already know that Mayor Eddie DeLoach and members of City Council announced last week their intention to hire Rob Hernandez, who has diverse work experience in Broward County, Fla., Fulton County, Ga. and other places.

Hernandez has an impressive resume and appears to have many areas of expertise. He certainly seems an impressive choice, and it was probably good news that the mayor and aldermen unanimously selected him as their top choice.

Hernandez’s work experience in the Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale areas has likely prepared him well for some of the challenges he will face in Savannah, including crime, poverty and tourism management. Hernandez also appears to know something about big projects, so he might be just the right person to oversee our daunting plans to build a new arena and redevelop the site of the existing arena.

There will be an obvious adjustment for Hernandez as he goes from deputy positions in very large metro areas to the top spot in Savannah, but that shouldn’t be difficult for such a seasoned professional.

On the other hand, Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale are very much the New South – if we can even count Florida as being in the South.

Savannah has changed dramatically over the last 25 years, but the city seems to have retained many of the elements of the Old South, for better and for worse.

The size of Savannah also encourages an echo chamber in which relatively small problems can seem like big ones.

All that said, I’m excited for Hernandez to get to work. Between now and then, city leadership will presumably get some lingering issues off the table, like long-proposed new ordinances governing food trucks and alcohol sales.

And maybe they’ll be able to steady the financial ship, which has been rocked by lengthy problems with water bills.


Goodbye Angel’s

Angel’s BBQ on West Oglethorpe Lane closed last weekend. The announcement was met with a wave of sadness and support from loyal customers who love the self-described “hole in the wall.”

Owners Andrew and Alieen Trice, who sold the building and needed to have more flexibility for family commitments, operated one of many “mom and pop” stores that still dot the downtown landscape.

I first wrote about Angel’s BBQ in April 2005, before the restaurant opened.

Even then, I noted that the place was “already chock-full of character and identity.”

Let’s hope the building finds a great new use and that local entrepreneurs continue to find success as they pursue their dreams.


City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. 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

Checking out the new Broughton St. heavyweight H&M

Sat, 08/13/2016 - 6:28pm
As I wandered for the first time into H&M at 240 W. Broughton St., I was immediately struck by the number of shoppers.  More than a dozen people were waiting in line at the first floor registers. The layout of the new store is straightforward, with the first floor primarily devoted to women’s clothes and accessories, the second floor to more women’s clothes, the third floor to men’s clothes and the fourth floor to kids’ wear. I’ll confess that I had never even heard of H&M until their Broughton Street location was announced a couple of years ago, and last week’s visit to the new Savannah store was my first encounter with the Swedish retailer. Prices are low. I’m not much of a shopper, but there were a variety of casual shirts in the $10 to $25 range that caught my attention.  Interestingly, even though I wandered through the entire store, no one asked if I needed help. Of course, I didn’t actually need any help, as the busy salespeople could probably tell.  The store’s interior feels appropriately bright and airy at street level, but the design of the upper stories does not take full advantage of the natural light. As a consequence, H&M feels more cut off from the street than downtown retailers like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie.   As for the exterior, regular readers know that I consistently objected to the demolition of a small historic building that allowed for the massive new store. The narrow parcels on streets like Broughton are part of the historic fabric of the city, and we set a troubling precedent if we allow lots to be combined. Still, the new building works fine within the context of Broughton Street, which was home for decades to large department stores that carried the latest fashions. Many folks around town continue to object to the presence of so many national and international retailers downtown, but the same standards are applied less often to the Southside and West Chatham. It’s worth noting that H&M replaced a vacant lot and that there are still many locally-owned shops on Broughton Street. H&M will generate considerable foot traffic, and savvy local business owners will find ways to lure those shoppers into their own stores.  And where can you park to go to H&M? I was out and about in my snazzy 1997 Avalon — the City Talk van recently gave up the ghost — when I decided to stop at H&M at 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.  I got greedy and looked for a parking space on Broughton Street very close to the store. As usual, there were plenty of spots east of Lincoln Street, but I thought I might be able to get even closer. Unfortunately, all the spaces between Barnard and Jefferson streets were taken, so I turned south on Jefferson and snagged a space directly behind Trinity United Methodist Church. That left me with approximately a two-minute walk to H&M. If I had not found the spot on Jefferson Street, I would easily have found one on Oglethorpe Avenue. I’m not detailing my boring trip simply to fill up column space. I continue to hear and read endless complaints about the impossibilities of parking downtown, but those complaints run directly counter to my own experience. If some of you are really spending 20 minutes looking for on-street parking, you are doing it wrong. If it’s all just hyperbole because folks are looking for something to complain about, that’s a different matter.  What would have happened if I had not turned south on Jefferson and had continued west on Broughton? Well, I wouldn’t have been able to turn south on Montgomery Street — we need to make that street two-way again — and I would have gotten caught up in the messy rush hour on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where on-street parking is limited. If I had turned north off Broughton Street, I would have been looking for a space around City Market, in the highest demand area in downtown.  Those traffic patterns are entirely predictable, however, and it’s hard to imagine anyone making those mistakes more than once. Drivers who are willing to look south of their destinations will almost always find spaces, and I fear that constant overstatements about downtown parking woes will lead us to unnecessarily restrictive and expensive new policies that will end up hurting businesses.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401. By: Bill DawersByline2: Savannah Morning NewsSection: BiS
  • Customers line up for the opening of H&M on West Broughton Street. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Search for city manager winds down

Mon, 08/08/2016 - 6:50pm
Members of Savannah City Council met last week with four prospective candidates for city manager. If the number had been whittled to three, the mayor and aldermen would have been required to release the finalists’ names.   As much as we need transparency in local governance, I’m relieved that our elected officials have withheld so many details about the search process. No one seemed to benefit from the very public nature of the search process that resulted in the hiring of Rochelle Small-Toney a few years ago.    I don’t have any inside scoop on where the search now stands, but the city manager search committee meets at 5 p.m. today and the full council has called a meeting to discuss the issue for 5 p.m. Wednesday, both meetings are at City Hall.    No matter what happens, we should expect lots of scrutiny and second-guessing about the mayor and aldermen’s choice.    And, if the past is any indication, much of that criticism will be misplaced. It’s likely that our new chief city executive will have some blotches on his or her resume, possibly including fights with elected leaders in other cities and policy initiatives that failed.   City managers come and go, after all, and none of them are going to have spotless records. Still, it’s fine to scrutinize the past of our new choice, but it will be more important to scrutinize the work of a new city manager once she’s on the job.    New alcohol ordinance nearing adoption It’s been a unnecessarily long and contentious process, but the city of Savannah will soon have a new alcohol ordinance.    The proposed ordinance recently received its first reading before City Council, so the new rules might be in place by the end of the month. That gives business owners some time to sort out their business plans before renewing their state alcohol licenses at the end of the year.   The new ordinance covers a lot of necessary ground, including provisions for event venues and complementary service at some small businesses. Bars would be able to apply for special permits to allow 18 to 20-year olds into live performances just like in cities across the Southeast.    An earlier draft of the ordinance called for an expansion of the Savannah’s to-go cup zone into Forsyth Park, but the timid proposal was fraught with problems because businesses immediately adjacent to the park would not have benefited.    Citizens seem divided on the prospect of an expanded to-go cup zone. My argument here has been and will be that an expansion would encourage economic development in neighborhoods south of the current cutoff line.    I’ll return to that subject in a future column, after the new ordinance is in place.    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: Newest Savannah bar Hitch hits the ground running

Sat, 08/06/2016 - 8:33pm

If you follow the downtown restaurant scene, you probably already know about Hitch, the new restaurant from the team at Treylor Park.

In fact, if you follow the downtown scene, there’s a good chance you’ve already eaten at Hitch, which seems to be doing brisk business in its first few weeks.

Treylor Park opened at 115 E. Bay St. in 2014, and it has been a big hit for a variety of reasons, including the inventive, reasonably priced menu and the restaurant’s two intimate spaces – the relatively small dining room and the comfortable patio off the lane.

Hitch opened last month at 300 Drayton St., but the entrance is on Liberty Street, across from Drayton Tower. The large space was briefly occupied by another restaurant. Before that, it had been divided into a couple of different retail stores.

Why so much turnover in that spot? There are obviously many reasons why businesses close, but the lack of visibility hasn’t helped. If you’re flying north on Drayton Street, you might not even notice Hitch.

Hitch is also just beyond the key tourist corridors. Scads of visitors walk along Bull and Abercorn streets, but comparatively few wander on nearby blocks of Drayton and Liberty streets.

None of that should be an impediment for Hitch, however, which has a strong appeal to locals and will eventually draw plenty of tourists once they start hearing about the menu, which is broadly similar to the one at Treylor Park.

Hitch has seating for dozens in the dining room and at the tables near the bar, but on all three of my visits I’ve opted to sit at the bar itself.

The Hitch menu has an array of categories, including shareable appetizers, wings, tacos, pizza, sliders, biscuits, egg rolls, salads and desserts. Most of those categories have just a few options, with many items priced $7 to $15.

I generally find that one dish isn’t quite enough for me, but two dishes can be too much, so I’d advise a party of two to order three items. You can always take the rest home.

My Hitch favorites so far have been the smoked salmon biscuit ($12), which has just the right amount of mascarpone, the sloppy Joe slider ($7) with ground venison and banana peppers and the scrumptious duck pot pie egg roll ($8).

Despite having three meals at Hitch, I haven’t dug all that deep into the menu – I haven’t yet sampled any of the wings, salads, desserts or pizzas.

According to Hitch’s Facebook page, which already has about 1,200 followers, the restaurant is open from noon to midnight Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to midnight on Saturday and Sunday.

Despite what many Savannahians believe, you’ll generally find on-street parking within a few blocks of Hitch. Sure, you can try to park right in front of the restaurant, but you’ll likely be happier if you look for a spot to the south and east, somewhere near Lafayette, Troup or Calhoun squares.

Expect more collisions around Forsyth

Last week, in a 14-hour time span, I witnessed two car crashes on Drayton Street near the Mansion on Forsyth Park and the Café at Forsyth Park.

There did not appear to be any injuries, thank goodness, and the cars remained more or less in the roadway. One vehicle ended up facing south and very close to the heavily used path along Forsyth Park, but fortunately no pedestrians were close enough to be endangered.

One wreck seemed to be caused by a driver in the right lane who was easing into the left lane, apparently either unaware that higher-speed traffic was in the left lane or that Drayton is one-way.

We’re likely to see an increase in wrecks like these.

Forsyth Park seems to get busier all the time, and the new spray pool is luring lots of local kids. A hotel and a restaurant are slated for the underutilized stretch of Drayton Street between the Mansion and the Savannah Law School, so that means more drivers slowing down in the search for parking spaces and curb cuts.

In general, it’s a good development for urban environments when traffic slows down, but those slower cars will be increasingly in the way of drivers accustomed to using Drayton as a speedway.


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

CITY TALK: Area's labor force continues to grow

Mon, 08/01/2016 - 9:40pm

A recent City Talk column examined the latest payroll employment estimates for the Savannah metro area, so today we’re just looking at the Georgia Department of Labor’s more recently released data from the June household survey.

The payroll numbers are generally referenced when we discuss total employment, but the household data are used to estimate the unemployment rate and other characteristics of the labor force.

Before I get to the numbers, this might also be a good time for the occasional reminder that the Savannah metro area is comprised of Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties. I’m fairly scrupulous in this column about specifying when I’m referencing the metro area, Chatham County or just the city of Savannah.

The Savannah metro area unemployment rate was 5.4 percent in June, up from 4.5 percent in May, but keep in mind that the Georgia Department of Labor does not adjust all the local data for seasonality. June is typically a down month for employment, largely because schools are not in session.

Georgia’s adjusted statewide unemployment rate fell from 5.3 percent in May to 5.1 percent in June, and we’d probably see a similar trend if seasonal adjustments were applied.

Also, it’s worth noting that the Savannah metro area unemployment rate was 6 percent in June 2015, so the 5.4 percent rate for June 2016 reinforces other positive trends we’ve been seeing in employment data.

I’m more interested, however, in the surge in the size of the local labor force. In June 2015, the Savannah metro area had 176,506 people either working or looking for work. For June 2016, that estimate leaped to 183,984.

That’s an annual increase of more than 4 percent, which is much faster than the rate of population increase.

In other words, many more local folks are looking for work this summer, and many more are finding work.

The estimates for the city of Savannah show similarly strong improvement. The city’s unadjusted unemployment rate was 7 percent in June 2015 but fell to 5.9 percent in June 2016, even as the size of the labor force increased by almost 4 percent.

The employment news might be rosy locally, but many nearby rural counties are in much rougher shape. In Screven County, which is just north of Effingham County along the Savannah River, the unemployment rate in June was 7.8 percent, and there has been no year-over-year increase in the size of the labor force.

The economic stagnation of much of rural Georgia deserves far more attention than it has been getting from state’s policymakers and press.


City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. 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

Savannah left its mark on James Alan McPherson

Sat, 07/30/2016 - 5:29pm
James Alan McPherson Jr. passed away at age 72 last week in Iowa City, where he had lived for many years.  In 1978, McPherson became the first black author to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for the collection of stories “Elbow Room.” Among other honors during his lifetime, he was awarded a so-called “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. McPherson received a graduate degree from the prestigious Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and subsequently taught in the program for more than 30 years. He also had a degree from Harvard Law School.  For what it’s worth, McPherson received a 900-word New York Times obituary, which is longer than this column. James Alan McPherson was also a native Savannahian. McPherson’s literary output was relatively small, but he wrote often of the South generally and Savannah specifically. But somehow we’ve lost the civic memory of McPherson’s deep connections to Savannah and the degree to which those connections influenced his work.  At a recent Emergent Savannah discussion at The Sentient Bean, a fascinating group of panelists discussed “Savannah’s Storied Landscape.” The focus was on the built environment of the city, but the discussion of remembrance and forgetting is relevant to this column. Panelist Richard Shinhoster shared especially compelling words about the literal destruction of a neighborhood to make way for the Interstate 16 flyover.  “The powers decided that entire area was expendable,” said Shinhoster, who owns Diaspora Marketplace on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.  The flyover was later named for Shinhoster’s late brother Earl T. Shinhoster, a civil rights activist who even served as executive director of the national NAACP, but Richard is nevertheless a strong advocate of removing the ramp and recreating the original street grid in the area. In his remarks, Shinhoster also noted that the cultural climate of the times encouraged many people to leave Savannah and make contributions elsewhere. In a short memoir “Going Up to Atlanta” — it’s easy to find a PDF online — McPherson talks with no bitterness about growing in poverty and about his fractured relationship with his father, who was repeatedly denied an official electrician’s license because of his race and who did several stints in prison.  Among many other subjects, McPherson also details delivering papers for the Savannah Morning News.  “When my bicycle was stolen, I carried (the newspapers) on my back,” McPherson writes. When McPherson’s family lived on East Henry Street, James Jr. discovered the Carnegie Library, which was less than a block away. He attended the historic Florance Street School, in addition to schools on West 36th and Paulsen streets.  In an especially telling vignette in “Going Up to Atlanta,” McPherson describes taking a first aid course and refusing to prove that he knew how to perform artificial respiration. “But during this time our mother was buying all our clothes from the Salvation Army, and there were holes in my shoes,” McPherson writes. “For this reason, I refused to kneel down and demonstrate how much I knew about artificial respiration. I knew that the other kids would laugh at the holes in my shoes. I did not want them to laugh. The teacher kept demanding that I kneel down. I kept refusing. I finally flunked the course.” In addition to East Henry Street, the young McPherson lived in a number of other places around town, including homes on West Waldburg, Montgomery, Bulloch and West Hall streets. “There is not one house where I lived as a child still standing,” McPherson says in “Going Up to Atlanta,” which was published almost 30 years ago.  We can still see the childhood homes of some incredibly influential Savannahians, including Juliette Gordon Low, Conrad Aiken, Johnny Mercer and Flannery O’Connor. Those buildings breathe constant new life into their occupants’ places in history. At the recent Emergent Savannah discussion, artist Jerome Meadows emphasized the need to tell the stories of black history and culture that so often get lost. In 2015, I wrote a few columns about the simmering controversy regarding the representation of African-American history in Savannah and its relationship to tourism. It’s clearly notable that Savannah was home to the first black writer to win the Pulitzer for fiction, but the lack of a clear physical connection hampers our ability to tell that story. McPherson himself, though he came back to Savannah regularly when his mother was alive and wrote eloquently about his youth, didn’t seek any recognition here. And why would he? In “Going Up to Atlanta,” Georgia’s capital city becomes a metaphor for moving on, both physically and emotionally. “Like all permanent exiles, I have learned to be at home inside myself,” writes McPherson near the end of the memoir. McPherson might have moved on, but it seems like a city that so honors its past would find ways to keep his story — and his stories — alive.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401. By: Bill DawersByline2: Savannah Morning NewsSection: BiS
  • James Alan McPherson
  • James Alan McPherson
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Bay Street 'experiment' will definitely hurt

Mon, 07/25/2016 - 9:15pm

“It wouldn’t hurt to try it,” City Manager Stephanie Cutter said last week during a city council workshop discussion of a proposed Bay Street “experiment,” which was later approved by council.

If you’re a regular reader of this column or if you follow the work of urban planners, you can probably think of several ways that the proposed experiment could — or will — hurt.

The mayor and aldermen seem to be under the illusion that the proposed changes will “calm” Bay Street traffic, but that won’t happen.

Yes, we’ve been averaging about 75 sideswipe accidents per year on Bay, according to data presented at last week’s workshop, and the proposal for widening the travel lanes will likely reduce the number of those types of crashes.

But we know that drivers go faster when lanes are wider, so we’ll see higher speeds. That’s a given.

We also know that drivers go faster when there is no on-street parking, which creates visual friction and forces drivers to be more vigilant.

So we might see fewer sideswipe accidents, but we’re more likely to see higher speed wrecks with injuries. We’ll likely have occasional wrecks, like those on streets like Whitaker, with cars careening into buildings.

The so-called experiment, which is scheduled for September, will remove 116 parking spaces. The perceived lack of parking is the single biggest complaint that I hear these days from local residents and downtown business owners, but we’re going to remove dozens from the heart of the city.

As I’ve noted here in the past, economists’ estimates differ regarding the value of on-street parking, but it’s clear that spaces are extremely valuable. The removal of so many spots would cost downtown businesses many millions per year.

The removal of parking spaces, the faster traffic and the increased traffic noise will also reduce property values. That impact won’t be felt immediately, but potential issues will begin as soon as the experiment is implemented, especially for property owners looking for buyers or tenants.

The removal of parking on the south side of Bay will also degrade the pedestrian experience because the eastbound travel lanes will be closer to the sidewalk. On Sunday morning, I sat along Bay Street on a bench while waiting for a table at B. Matthew’s Eatery, but you won’t find me sitting there in September, when speeding cars will be about 10 feet away.

Most importantly, let’s hope no one gets seriously injured during this experiment. That’s not being alarmist, just realistic. Moving faster traffic closer to pedestrians is a recipe for disaster.


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
Topic: City Talk

New spray pool in Forsyth a resounding success

Sat, 07/23/2016 - 7:36pm
At noon on Thursday, about 25 children were enjoying the spray pool next to the playground in Forsyth Park. The screaming and squealing kids were having a grand time as their parents and guardians wilted in the sun or sought refuge on the stage itself.   After lengthy delays, the spray pool opened earlier this summer, marking another step in the evolution of Forsyth Park, which many of us consider the crown jewel of Savannah’s amazing public spaces. The spray pool has certainly improved quality of life for the children who visit Forsyth on hot summer days. That includes young tourists as well as locals. Seriously, three cheers for the new play area, although it ought to stay open later than 6 p.m. Many Savannahians no doubt remember the previous attempt to install a decorative fountain with spray jets at its base. The water features were ill-conceived, inconsistently activated and badly marketed. The result was a mess, as children began playing in the fountain itself when the spray jets were turned off.  The city at first considered entirely getting rid of the fountains at the base of the stage. If we had done that, we could have dramatically enhanced performances by having a sort of bowl so that audiences could get much closer to the action. But, as things have played out, we’ve seen fewer and fewer performances on that stage.  Years ago, before the current so-called “band shell” was even constructed, Shakespeare in the Park took over Forsyth for one weekend every year. Until 2015, the Savannah Jazz Festival was using the current stage for several days each year, but organizers cut back to one day in Forsyth in 2015. We have numerous other music festivals in Savannah, but none of them have used the stage for several years. Yes, Savannah Pride uses the stage for one day each year, we still have Picnic in the Park, the Savannah College of Art and Design continues to use the park for its free New Alumni Concert on the night before spring commencement and there are a smattering of other uses throughout the year. But we had just as many public performances in Forsyth Park before we built the current stage as we have now.  The relative lack of use of the stage is a logical result of the poor choices made during the design phase, but at least we now have the spray pool, which is obviously a resounding success.   Local economy adding jobs at rapid pace The good economic news keeps rolling in. According to data released by the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 179,500 payroll jobs in June. That’s an increase of 4.1 percent over June 2015. As I’ve been noting for many months, the current pace of job growth is unsustainable. We can’t continue to add jobs at four times the rate of population growth forever. Two sectors accounted for more than half of the year-over-year jobs gains. According to the estimates, payroll employment in professional and business services increased by 1,900 between June 2015 and June 2016. That sector includes a wide range of professional, technical, scientific, managerial and administrative positions.   The leisure and hospitality sector added 2,200 jobs over the past year. That sector is primarily comprised of jobs in accommodation and food services. As has been discussed often around these parts, many of those leisure and hospitality jobs don’t pay well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly earnings in accommodation and food services is just under $14 an hour. I suspect that’s a higher wage than many would have guessed, but it’s pretty low as an average. On the other hand, it’s worth saying that many Savannah food servers and bartenders are making far more money per hour than that.  Also, it’s worth saying that the average work week in accommodation and food services is less than 27 hours. It’s a sector that appeals to workers who prefer limited hours and are sometimes satisfied with limited incomes. Still, it’s obviously reasonable to be concerned about the economic balance in the Savannah metro area. Statewide, approximately 10.7 percent of payroll jobs are in leisure and hospitality.  In Savannah, by contrast, leisure and hospitality comprises 15.9 percent of payroll jobs. In other words, about one in nine payroll jobs in Georgia are in leisure and hospitality, while in Savannah the number is one in six.    City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401. By: Bill DawersByline2: Savannah Morning NewsSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Will 'Pokemon Go' have lasting impacts on Savannah’s cultural landscape?

Sat, 07/16/2016 - 11:48pm

At 1:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday morning, I spotted a dozen people milling around the north end of Forsyth Park. They were smiling and laughing.

They were playing “Pokemon Go.”

A few nights later, a friend reported that she was enjoying a beautiful night in Forsyth Park. She wasn’t playing Pokemon Go, but the park was dotted with people who were, so she felt safe staying out after dark.

The “Pokemon Go” craze could crash fast, but there are obviously some interesting things happening if a game can so quickly change how Americans interact with public spaces.

We’ve seen a spike in armed robberies near Forsyth Park this year, so it’s notable that the park has been flooded with residents since the game’s release, even on blazing hot afternoons and very late at night when the park is technically “closed.”

After seeing so many people playing the game, I decided to download the free app and give it a try.

Really, who knew that my neighborhood was crawling with Rattatas, Weedles and Zubats?

On the most basic level, “Pokemon Go” is fun. It’s oddly satisfying, if a little embarrassing, to catch a Pidgey in the bread section of Kroger, but it only takes a moment.

No, I certainly didn’t need an “augmented reality” game to make me appreciate the beauty and history of the downtown Savannah area, but there’s no denying that “Pokemon Go” changes the way one navigates the city.

The game, which apparently uses geographic data from the game “Ingress,” has turned real life landmarks into locations where players can gather necessary items and even engage in battles at “gyms.”

Typically, players can access these features if they’re within half a block of the destinations.

As a longtime resident of the downtown area, I’m already familiar with many of the landmarks that are now “gyms” and so-called “Pokestops,” but the game steered me in directions I don’t usually go.

For example, I spent a few minutes last week sitting in Thomas Square, which is adjacent to the Bull Street Library. I’ve lived just a few blocks away for 20 years, but I had no idea how lovely and relaxing that space has become.

In the northeast quadrant of Forsyth Park, I was confronted with a poignant plaque next to a tree planted in 2000 to mark Savannah’s “Victory Over Violence.” I’d forgotten about that community-wide effort to reduce violence in the wake of a spike in violence in the late 1990s.

According to articles about “Victory Over Violence” in the Savannah Morning News archives, the movement was prompted by the 42 homicides in 1999. We had more homicides than that in 2015, and we’ll almost certainly have more in 2016, too.

I also had no idea that there was a Little Free Library in a community garden on W. 38th St., but “Pokemon Go” pointed me to it.

How many of the game’s players were previously aware of the importance of the Georgia Infirmary or Mother Matilda Beasley to African-American history? How many of us who live in the Bull Street corridor can rattle off the names of churches along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard?

“Pokemon Go” also leads users to neighborhood landmarks that may or may not endure. Within several blocks of my house, there are game locations at several hand-painted signs and murals, at least two of which no longer exist.

On my Pokemon-inspired walks, I’ve seen several impromptu interactions between game-playing strangers.

Certainly, there are hazards in all of this. Hanging out in Forsyth Park in the middle of the night probably isn’t advised, even if you’re with a dozen people. And we don’t need tourists spending even more time staring at their phones as they cross downtown streets.

On the other hand, while “Pokemon Go” might encourage more people to stare at their screens, it also encourages them to look up and study the built environment. It encourages exercise, engagement and civic knowledge.

For a variety of geeky reasons, I’m assuming that “Pokemon Go” will get less entertaining over time, but the stunning embrace of the game’s technology raises tantalizing questions and possibilities.

How might this game or a similar one impact tourism and commerce?

How does a fantasy world overlay impact the much-valued “authenticity” of historic sties?

Can a game that lures players outside in large numbers have a consistently positive impact on public safety?

“Pokemon Go” was released in the United States on July 6, so it’s way too early to understand the sociological implications.

But this feels like an important cultural moment to me, and I don’t just say that because I’m at Level 9 and ready to battle for control of the neighborhood.


City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. 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
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: How will Savannah respond to recent protests?

Mon, 07/11/2016 - 10:35pm

On Sunday evening, I walked to Forsyth Park for the vigil organized by Savannah’s nascent Black Lives Matter chapter.

The vigil included Bible readings, prayers and moments of silence for Americans killed by police officers, for the police officers killed last week in Dallas and for those killed in the Pulse shooting in Orlando.

I did not follow the subsequent march through downtown to City Hall, although most attendees of the vigil did.

It’s tough to estimate crowds, and I’ve heard all sorts of numbers for the turnout. I’d say there were 500 or so at the vigil, with perhaps somewhat more participating in the march.

The crowd was strikingly diverse. While most attendees were black, there were a significant number of white people on hand. The age range was remarkably broad.

I recognized a lot of people at the gathering, but I was a little surprised that I didn’t see more of Savannah’s most prominent leaders and activists. Of course, some of those folks, including a number of elected officials, were apparently at an “emergency meeting” hosted by the Urban Savannah Chamber of Commerce at First African Baptist Church.

In other cities, Black Lives Matter protests have been blocking interstates and disrupting commerce, but that certainly wasn’t the case here. There just isn’t a lot of traffic to disrupt on a sultry Sunday evening in mid-July in Savannah.

I’d give the Savannah-Chatham police department high marks for its response to the event, which came at a time of extreme national and local angst.

During the vigil, police officers remained unobtrusive, a considerable distance from the crowd. Later, patrol cars sealed off key streets.

The SCMPD communications staff tweeted eight times through the day. The tweets were both reassuring and informational.

And I’d give high marks to the organizers and protestors. I found the atmosphere hopeful and inclusive.

Now what?

Many Savannahians, especially those who live in high-crime neighborhoods, are distrustful of local law enforcement. There are understandable reasons for that distrust.

Many Savannahians also feel that they and their neighborhoods have not been benefiting from the region’s remarkable economic growth.

Like other cities, we have deep racial divides.

At the same time, we should recognize that Savannah is home to many smart and passionate people who share similar goals regarding trust, safety and opportunity.

Sure, citizens will choose different paths to achieve those goals, and sometimes those efforts might seem at odds with each other.

I’m confident that we’ll see some good things come out of that dynamic tension.


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
  • Jomo Johnson, head of Savannah’s Black Lives Matter chapter, addresses the crowd that gathered in Forsyth Park to pay respects to Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the Dallas police killed by a sniper last week. (Will Peebles/Savannah Morning News)
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Le Cafe Gourmet offers authentic, casual French fare

Sat, 07/09/2016 - 7:39pm
If you follow the Savannah restaurant scene, you’ve probably already heard raves about Le Café Gourmet, which opened in April at 53 Montgomery St., just north of Broughton Street.   There’s nothing fancy about the interior. It’s a bright, cozy space with a handful of tables. Large windows look east across Montgomery Street toward Anthropologie and the former Marc Jacobs store.    Le Café Gourmet has the advantage of being just steps from City Market, Congress Street and Broughton Street, but it still feels like a quiet spot far removed from the bustle of downtown.   I’ve had lunch at the new café and bakery twice. On my first trip, I had one of the daily specials — a roast beef sandwich with blue cheese and other items on a small loaf of the special bread of the day.   On my most recent visit, I opted for a simple ham and cheese crepe, which at $6.50 might be one of the most satisfying lunch items in town. The savory and sweet crepes, “croissandwiches” and sandwiches are almost all priced under $8.   I haven’t yet tried any of the pastries, cakes, pies, eclairs or other baked goods, but they sure look tempting in the case. On my last trip, I did pick up a couple of small loaves of the bread du jour. I was told that it would go beautifully with salad, but I opted for butter and cheese. C’est la vie.   If these details sound authentically French, it’s no doubt because, as noted on the café website (, owners Alexandre and Angela grew up in France and moved to Savannah to open a restaurant.   I’ve only been to Le Café Gourmet for lunch, but many of the items would be ideal for breakfast or even carryout supper. The café’s Facebook page is updated regularly with photos of daily specials or occasionally with changes to normal hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday).    I’ve heard or read raves of Le Café Gourmet from a wide variety of downtown folks, including businesspeople, a tattoo artist who works next door and owners of short-term vacation rentals who have been recommending the spot to tourists. The Grey’s Facebook page even praised Le Café Gourmet in a recent post.    Le Café Gourmet is certainly a welcome addition to the local restaurant scene.   New restaurant planned for 37th and Abercorn And in other exciting news for the local food scene, the owners of Circa 1875 last week announced a new venture.   LaScala Ristorante is slated for the southwest corner of 37th and Abercorn streets, in a grand old home that was formerly occupied by Peacock’s on 37th Flower Shop.   The project is just getting underway, but there are now banners announcing the new restaurant hanging on the building, which has more than 6,000 square feet, according to Chatham County records.   LaScala will be just down the block from Elizabeth on 37th in the heart of the historic Thomas Square neighborhood, which has of course been attracting significant investment and interest.   That surge in investment is the natural result of several important factors, including the increase in commercial rents in the Landmark Historic District, the tilting of the Landmark District economy more toward tourism and the increased frustration of local residents about parking in the city’s central business district.    When you hear about new small business investment in the Thomas Square and Metropolitan neighborhoods or in the Starland area that straddles those neighborhoods, it’s worth recalling that the Mid-City rezoning laid the groundwork for properly scaled new development.    The zoning ordinance has simplified bureaucratic processes, protected the neighborhood’s residential integrity, brought design guidelines into sync with historical standards, encouraged mixed use development, created reasonable off-street parking requirements and facilitated commercial investment, especially on key corners like 37th and Abercorn streets.    The Mid-City rezoning was approved by Savannah officials in 2005 and immediately began paying dividends. I live right next door to a lovely mixed-use property that would have needed a boatload of variances under the arcane rules that were previously in place.    But then the recession hit, and everything stalled for a few years. As a result, the value of that zoning overhaul is not as prominent in our civic consciousness as it should be.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. 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
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: First Friday Art March says much about Starland

Mon, 07/04/2016 - 10:39pm

My Fourth of July weekend began at the First Friday Art March in the Starland neighborhood.

A slow but steady stream of folks wandered through Sulfur Studios. A number of artists had their individual work spaces open, and there was an informal exhibition of drawings in the main gallery.

The Wormhole’s patio was bustling, and dozens hung around for Tokalos, XuluProphet and other musicians who played later. Those sets had been moved indoors because of an earlier threat of rain, but the weather ultimately turned out fine.

Over at House of Strut, the vibrant vintage store at the southeast corner of 41st and Whitaker streets, patrons were enjoying the groovy, jazzy music of The Sound Experiment, a talented young band that was dressed in clothing from the store.

A number of other stores were open, as usual, and the event felt focused as much on community as on art.

The turnout wasn’t as large as the Art March has had in other months, but there were obvious reasons for that, including the slow pace of summer and the long holiday weekend.

It’s been interesting to see the commercial and cultural evolution of Starland, the arts district centered on the still unrenovated old Starland Dairy on Bull Street.

I was a regular attendee of art openings in Starland back in the late 1990s, and I looked on Friday night for anyone I remembered from those days. There seemed to be only a few of us around.

Starland seemed poised for resurgence early in this century, but it got caught up in the real estate bubble, which obviously burst. The post recession version of Starland has lots of new players at the table, and now there seems no turning back.

We’ve seen significant commercial investment along the Bull Street corridor in the last few years, and it looks like even more is on the way. We might even see some forward movement on renovations to the Starland Dairy itself soon.

It’s worth noting here that some of that commercial investment would not have been possible without the Mid-City/Thomas Square rezoning over a decade ago.

A cynic might use the word “gentrification” to dismiss the changes to the neighborhood over the last two decades, but as a resident of the general area, I can say that the reality can’t be so easily characterized.

The Starland newcomers, a group that is generally younger and whiter than the neighborhood as a whole, seem genuinely attracted to the area’s diversity and general funkiness. The trick will be maintaining those qualities even as more money and people flow in.


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 TalkSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

Savannah’s economy strong, but there’s still a lot to do

Sat, 07/02/2016 - 5:55pm
We’ve hit the halfway point of 2016, and many signs suggest that the regional economy is humming right along. In last week’s column, I detailed the strong job growth that we’ve been experiencing for many months, although it’s worth noting that employment is generally considered a lagging economic indicator. In other words, we might not see a decline in labor market data until a slowdown is well underway. But there are plenty of other signs of a strong local economy, including solid housing data, considerable new business investment and steady tourism.  I’ve been writing this column a long time, and I’d say that entrepreneurs seem more optimistic about Savannah’s prospects than they have in a decade. Of course, a decade ago, much of the new investment was inflating a dangerous housing bubble, but I haven’t seen any signs that those mistakes are being repeated. Still, one important sector has struggled in the first half of 2016.  According to data from the Georgia Ports Authority, total TEU (20-foot equivalent units) throughput in February was 8 percent higher than in February 2015, but January, March, April and May have posted year-over-year declines ranging from 3 percent to 11 percent. The 2016 numbers are still well ahead of the pace from 2014, however.  Other East Coast ports have experienced similar traffic declines, which seem to be the result of high inventory levels, general concerns about the world economy and shifting trade patterns.   There are ample reasons to assume that traffic will increase over the long-term at East Coast ports, especially in the wake of the expansion of the Panama Canal and the billions being spent for U.S. port expansions and improvements. It’s hard to say what will happen in the short run, however, or how much of a drag a continued shipping slowdown will be on the regional economy. But what about politics and crime? The local economy might have been doing fine by most measures in the first half of 2016, but there is a great deal of anxiety out there.  Crime continues to be the major public concern, and, as I’ve detailed in this column, 2016 might be the worst year ever for violence in Savannah.  For now, the general public seems to be giving a sort of grace period to Chief Jack Lumpkin and Savannah’s political leaders, but if the violence continues at this same pace through the remainder of 2016, we could see a markedly different mood at year’s end.  Over the first half of 2016, we’ve also seen Mayor Eddie DeLoach and three new aldermen — Bill Durrence, Brian Foster and Julian Miller — settle into their new roles. It’s really early in the four-year term of this new Savannah City Council, but I remain optimistic about the direction things are headed, even if myriad questions remain. The search team for a new Savannah city manager has identified 12 semifinalists from a fairly large pool of applicants. There are good reasons to be optimistic that we’ll have a strong group of finalists with considerable professional experience, although things could get sticky if the aldermen are divided on the best candidate. The new mayor and council avoided the political minefield of another extended debate about the location of Savannah’s proposed new arena. Uncertainties remain about the total costs of building the arena and creating the proposed Canal District adjacent to it, but it seems like the elected leaders are asking the right questions. The new council is also steadily moving key issues from the backburner to the front burner. A long delayed food truck ordinance might be enacted soon, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see a smarter alcohol ordinance in place before the end of 2016.  We might even see some wrangling with an important overhaul of the city’s zoning code by the end of the year. For more information on that, check out In the latter half of 2016, we are also likely to see continued public anxiety about a variety of issues beyond crime.  Rapid tourism growth will continue to be a flashpoint, as will Savannah’s high poverty rate.  General anxieties about development, parking and transportation are also likely to increase. I’m looking forward to open and substantive public discussion about all those issues in the second half of 2016.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.  By: Bill DawersByline2: Savannah Morning NewsSection: BiSTopic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Where can you find downtown parking?

Mon, 06/27/2016 - 10:39pm

Before a big downtown gathering recently, would-be attendees peppered the Facebook event page with questions about where to find parking.

I’ve often said in this column that downtown parking is generally easy to find, although it may not be exactly where you want it.

Many of my readers apparently don’t trust my take on that.

I live a few blocks south of Forsyth Park, so I generally enter the Landmark Historic District on foot or via bicycle, but I still end up driving downtown pretty often and have been doing so for over 20 years.

Sure, I’ve been frustrated at times by not finding a space more quickly, but in almost all those cases it was my own fault. I got too greedy.

Last Friday night, I was headed downtown at 9 p.m. for a show at Ampersand, which is at the corner of Congress Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. I decided before I left the house that I would park on Montgomery Street just south of Oglethorpe Avenue.

Lo and behold, there were several spaces right there, so I was left with an easy five-minute walk.

This is not some weird magic. Depending on the time of day, week and year, it’s not hard to predict where on-street parking will be available.

What would have happened if I had gotten greedy on Friday night and driven north of Oglethorpe?

Probably nothing good. I might have spent 10 minutes or more mindlessly looping through the Historic District, often on streets with little or no on-street parking. I might have gotten stuck behind any number of slow-moving vehicles, and I likely would have wound up near Oglethorpe again.

Let me make a couple of simple suggestions to avoid that kind of frustration.

If you’re totally unfamiliar with the downtown parking landscape, if you’re bound for the northern portion of the Historic District and if you have the mobility to walk five to 10 minutes, you should probably be looking for parking along or south of Oglethorpe Avenue. If you go east of Lincoln Street, you will probably be able to get farther north than that.

Also, of course, it’s worth noting that we have some perfectly fine parking garages that generally have spaces.

Eventually, we will all likely be using apps to locate empty on-street spaces in real time, and the city might eventually have better signage that directs visitors both to garages and to blocks with available parking. We might also have better transit eventually, and we might even add on-street parking where we can.

Until those things happen, you’re probably better off parking a little farther south or a little farther west than you’d like. You might find that you enjoy the short walk.


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
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Population boom fuels local employment growth

Sat, 06/25/2016 - 9:31pm

Six Georgia counties now account for about two-thirds of population growth in the state, according to research by University of Georgia demographer Matt Hauer that was reported in this newspaper last week.

Five of those six counties are in the Atlanta metro area. Chatham County is the other.

That’s an interesting and not especially surprising data point given the steady strength of the local job and real estate markets.

According to U.S. Census estimates, Chatham County’s population on July 1, 2010 was 265,896.

On July 1, 2015, Chatham had an estimated population of 286,956.

That’s an increase of about 8 percent in just five years, which is really fast.

In the past, I’ve been skeptical of some of the more extreme predictions for population growth along the coast. Unrealistic expectations of rapid in-migration certainly contributed to the depth of the local housing bust, and we might still be a generation away from developing all the areas where investors made big bets a decade ago.

But if current trends continue, I’ll eventually have to set aside my remaining skepticism.

Effingham and Bryan counties, which with Chatham comprise the Savannah Metropolitan Statistical Area, also experienced strong population growth between 2010 and 2015.

However, you don’t have to get far beyond the metro area to find counties with stagnant or declining populations. Demographer Hauer notes that half of Georgia’s counties are losing population, which should come as no surprise if you’ve read my occasional rants about declining employment and investment in rural areas.

Rapid population growth brings its own problems, of course, but that growth is likely both a cause and effect of the strong local job market.

According to the most recent estimates, the Savannah metro area had 177,800 nonfarm payroll jobs in May, which was an increase of 3.3 percent from May 2015. That’s considerably faster than the rate of year-over-year population growth. Such employment growth rates will eventually be unsustainable, but it seems we’re still reeling in some of the slack from the 2007-2009 recession and years of slow recovery.

The most significant increases in employment over the past year have come in two sectors: professional and business services, which includes a wide variety of white collar jobs, and leisure and hospitality, which consists largely of positions in restaurants and bars.

Several other sectors — including construction, manufacturing and trade — showed little or no growth between May 2015 and May 2016.

In a future column, I’ll compare the various employment sectors to the numbers from 2006, the year before the recession.

The positive news for payroll employment has been reinforced by other recent data released by the Georgia Department of Labor.

The number of initial applications for unemployment insurance in the Savannah metro area fell from 930 in May 2015 to 781 in May 2016, which suggests fewer layoffs. Statewide, the number of initial unemployment claims actually rose in May compared to a year earlier.

Also, the Savannah metro area unemployment rate fell from 5.8 percent in May 2015 to 4.5 percent in May 2016.

The underlying numbers are really strong. Over the year, the local labor force grew by about 1.6 percent, which is probably faster than the rate of population growth, while the number of persons employed increased an estimated 2.9 percent.

The Atlanta, Athens and Gainesville metro areas also saw significant year-over-year increases in the size of the labor force, but most other Georgia metros saw small increases or even declines.

In Hinesville, for example, there was a sharp decline in the unemployment rate compared to a year ago, but that was primarily because of a decline in the size of the labor force rather than an increase in employment.

Within the city of Savannah, the unemployment rate fell sharply from 6.5 percent in May 2015 to 4.9 percent in May 2016.

It’s interesting to note that these heartening gains in local employment have coincided with a virtually unprecedented increase in violent crime. The jurisdiction covered by the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department is on pace for about 60 murders in 2016, which would be an all-time high.

So far, at least, there’s no data suggesting that the spike in violence is tempering population growth, job growth or tourism.


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

City Talk: New office to anchor south end of Forsyth

Mon, 06/20/2016 - 7:44pm

In 2013, I wrote about a planned development that would have transformed the south end of Forsyth Park.

At the time, the large lot at the southwest corner of Bull Street and Park Avenue was slated for a mix of residential and commercial uses. There would have been an apartment building right on the corner, with retail at street level and single-family homes facing Park and Bull.

That ambitious development was approved, but now a totally different plan is on tap.

The law firm Bouhan Falligant currently occupies the Armstrong House at 447 Bull St. at the north end of Forsyth Park, but they’ll be moving next year to a new building called One West Park Avenue.

With Brighter Day Natural Foods and the sprawling American Legion complex across Bull Street, the vacant site begs for an active use, and the new office building, which has room for a tenant on the first floor, should work out fine.

Dating back to the 19th century, the site has been home to a variety of residential and commercial buildings. The most recent use was a day care center.

The stately new three-story structure will be about 18,000 square feet and will be oriented toward Park Avenue (i.e., facing the park), but there will also be entrances on Bull Street, with some parking off Park Lane. A patio and landscaping will buffer the building from the nearest house on Park Avenue.

The brick and stone elements should lend gravity to the building, and the many windows should prevent it from feeling too forbidding.

It’s worth noting that Bouhan Falligant employees will spend a great deal of money at nearby businesses, even during the slower months. The lot is now used sporadically for parking, sometimes without the owner’s permission, but the new use will generate much more economic activity and property tax revenue.

The size of One West Park Avenue requires 39 off-street parking spaces, most of which will be remote. The law firm has a long-term agreement for 32 spots in the parking lot at Bull Street Baptist Church, which is a bit of a hike.

It will be interesting to see how many of those remote spaces are actually used. If I were an employee at Bouhan Falligant, I’d probably just snag one of the unmetered on-street spaces along Park Avenue or Bull Street.

The Armstrong House and its adjacent parking lot on Gaston Street appear likely to be developed into some sort of boutique inn or hotel. You’ll be reading more about that soon.


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 DawersSection: BiS
  • This rendering depicts a planned development that would transform the south end of Forsyth Park. (Courtesy Bouhan Falligant)
Topic: City Talk

CITY TALK: Emergent Savannah panel emphasizes proactive planning

Sat, 06/18/2016 - 6:27pm
Emergent Savannah packed The Sentient Bean last week for the latest installment in its series Monday Means Community.   This month’s meeting, titled “The Politics of Place: People, Planning and Possibilities,” featured panelists Tom Thomson of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, Kevin Klinkenberg from the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, SCAD professor Ryan Madson and attorney Harold Yellin, whom you’ve probably seen in action representing clients before various municipal bodies.    Savannah Morning News reporter Mary Landers moderated the conversation.   Much of the session was devoted to discussion of bureaucratic processes that underlie civic planning. Klinkenberg correctly noted that those processes often seem “opaque” and “exhausting,” even to citizens who try to engage.   Thomson emphasized the importance of citizens being involved earlier in the planning process. In general, Thomson and the other panelists seemed to be arguing for residents to be more proactive and less reactive.   For example, the MPC is currently preparing an update to the Comprehensive Plan, and officials distributed survey forms at last week’s Emergent meeting. You can take a look at the current plan at and fill out a survey at    That survey should yield some interesting data about residents’ visions for Savannah, but the document does not address specific neighborhoods. If you have concerns about the fate of specific properties, you should start digging into the details of the current zoning and proposed future uses.   Thomson also invoked a simile that I’m going to use again. He said that our current zoning ordinance is like the picture of Dorian Gray.   We have a vibrant city that’s full of life, but our zoning ordinance is aging terribly.   Longtime readers might remember that the MPC started working on an overhaul of the zoning in the city of Savannah and unincorporated Chatham County about a decade ago.    As a columnist and as a citizen, I was part of a technical committee that met almost 30 times between 2007 and 2010, so I can vouch firsthand for the diligence, concern and professionalism of the planners involved.   The MPC staffers certainly didn’t plan on the process taking so long, but there have been myriad delays caused by various governmental bodies.   Thomson did note, however, that the MPC and Savannah city officials are working on another revision of the current document. Perhaps we’ll see some movement before the end of 2016.   You can read more about the proposed New Zoning Ordinances at   Later in the discussion, Klinkenberg echoed the Dorian Gray reference when he noted that young entrepreneurs sometimes feel especially stifled by outdated zoning ordinances.   As Klinkenberg spoke, I was reminded of attorney Dana Braun’s 2013 Savannah Morning News op-ed about a young businesswoman who was moving away because we did not have an ordinance under which she could successfully operate a food truck.    And we still don’t have that ordinance.   Klinkenberg added affordability to the arguments for more streamlined bureaucratic process. If would-be entrepreneurs always have to lawyer up and weather lengthy waits, the costs of development increase and have to be passed on to tenants or buyers.    Yellen also made the case for zoning ordinance updates when he discussed the likelihood of booming investment on Indian Street after recent changes to parking requirements.   Madson’s vision for the city is outlined in tremendous detail in his essay “Projective Preservation: A Manifesto for Savannah,” which was published recently by Strelka Magazine (   I don’t have space here to do justice to Madson’s 6,000-word piece, but he does make some straightforward arguments for a greater emphasis on affordable residential development.   “Residents are more important than tourists,” Madson says in his manifesto. “They live here permanently and take care of the place. A strong counter-point to mass tourism is the presence of locals.”   “More (affordable) housing in the Landmark District is needed to provide a critical mass of residents and to ensure Savannah does not become a museum city,” Madson writes. “If Savannah’s leadership is comfortable building large hotels for tourists — which it is — it should also be fine with new multi-family housing.”   We have a lot of large underutilized lots in the greater downtown area, and we have some big decisions ahead regarding our vision for the current arena site, the proposed Canal District and other swaths of land in downtown expansion areas.   I think we will make better decisions about future land use if concerned citizens get in the game now.   City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. 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: Four questions about the proposed new arena

Mon, 06/13/2016 - 10:38pm

Whew. Glad that’s over.

Last week, Savannah City Council finally laid to rest the question of the location for a new arena to replace the aging one at the Civic Center.

As regular readers know, I’ve always been a fan of the site just west of downtown selected about 15 years ago when Floyd Adams was mayor. The recent study piloted by Barrett Sports Group confirmed that the site has great potential.

Perhaps more importantly, West Savannah residents turned out in large numbers for last week’s meeting, and alderman Van Johnson was able to push through a motion that reconfirmed the city’s commitment to the site north of West Gwinnett Street between Boundary Street and Stiles Avenue.

So now we can stop the bureaucratic and civic haggling over the location and move on to other important questions. I’ll suggest four questions here that might guide our thinking.

What can we do to limit new arena construction costs and maximize funding for related needs?

At last week’s meeting, at-large Alderman Brian Foster noted that the arena could potentially be built for much less than the consultants’ estimates. The study includes significant contingencies and soft cost allowances where we could potentially save millions from the final price tag.

It might sound ridiculous to think that a local government could work so frugally, but it’s certainly possible if the right people are in charge.

What steps can we take now to encourage economic investment in the Stiles Avenue corridor even though we are still years away from having a new arena?

I plan to take a closer look at some of the opportunities and challenges for a future column.

What about the costs and feasibilities of the proposed Canal District adjacent to the new arena?

At minimum, we need good pathways connecting the site to the core of downtown, but we don’t yet know the full costs to implement the broader vision for the area. The Barrett Sports Group has been contracted to examine the possibilities.

And what should we do with the current arena site?

I’ve written many columns over the years about potential uses for that large site, which could include not only the arena itself but also the adjacent parking lot and the trust lots on the west side of Orleans Square.

There seems to be an emerging consensus that we should reestablish the street grid as much as possible and get that land back into private hands, but we are still going to be faced with a lot of choices. I will certainly return to that issue in future columns.


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