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CITY TALK: One final trip to Johnny Harris

I had not eaten at Johnny Harris Restaurant for a couple of years, so I dropped by for a late lunch last Wednesday.
 
Barring some unforeseen development, the iconic Victory Drive restaurant will close for good on May 28. In the coming months, the Johnny Harris building, the nearby stables at Wicklow Farms and a variety of other structures will be razed for a large retail development.
 
The owners of Johnny Harris have every right to bring the restaurant to an end, but this is still a sad moment for the city.
 
I sat in one of the comfortably narrow booths in the kitchen, which is where I’ve eaten on most of my Johnny Harris trips over the last two decades. The gorgeous main room is the restaurant’s signature space, but I’ve always loved the fact that patrons could enjoy the unique dining experiences in the kitchen and the bar. 
 
The restaurant was temporarily out of the barbecue lamb sandwich, so I ordered fried chicken with a side salad and potato salad.
 
I’m pretty sure I ordered unsweetened tea, but I ended up with sweet tea. Call it serendipity. I didn’t send it back. 
 
Everything was fantastic. 
 
A young mother who had obviously eaten at Johnny Harris many times was there with her two young children who likely won’t have any memories of the place.
 
At another nearby booth, an older patron, who could possibly have eaten at Johnny Harris back in the 1920s, enjoyed conversation with her family. 
 
As I worked my way through my meal — yes, I even ate all the buttered white toast  I wondered again why Johnny Harris never seemed to capitalize on the booming tourism of the last 20 years. Maybe the problem was simply the location.
 
Sure, lots of tourists and other visitors found their way to the Victory Drive mainstay, but the restaurant maintained its distinctly local character and clientele. 
 
As I noted in a previous column, we have many other locally owned restaurants that have already become part of the cultural fabric of Savannah. I’m sure some of those spots would love to have the support of Johnny Harris regulars.
 
Strong employment gains in April in Savannah metro area
More good news for the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) in the latest estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor. 
 
In April, the number of initial claims for unemployment declined slightly compared to April 2015, while payroll employment grew 4 percent year over year.
 
This is probably a tired refrain for regular readers of this column, but that pace of job growth is far faster than population growth and can’t be sustained indefinitely. 
 
Over the past year, we’ve posted especially strong gains in professional and business services and in leisure and hospitality.
 
With an estimated 27,300 payroll jobs, the leisure and hospitality sector accounts for approximately 15 percent of local employment. That number includes some jobs that aren’t directly related to tourism, by the way, but the vast majority are in accommodation and food services. 
 
I continue to hear regularly from local residents who are concerned about the growth in tourism, in part because of low wages for some positions. Those complaints prompted me to look at leisure and hospitality employment statewide. 
 
Across Georgia, there are an estimated 463,000 jobs in leisure and hospitality. That’s about 10.6 percent of payroll jobs in the state. 
 
You could look at the numbers in a couple of different ways. On the one hand, you could say that leisure and hospitality employment is more than 40 percent higher in Savannah than in the rest of Georgia. On the other hand, you could dismiss the difference. It’s just a few percentage points, after all.
 
Fifteen percent might not sound like all that much, but leisure and hospitality employment outpaces employment in education and health services, government, professional and business services and retail trade. And some of those retail jobs are supported by tourism, as are some of the government jobs.
 
The tourism boom shows no sign of slowing, and the attendant controversies will likely keep growing, too. I’ll devote a few upcoming columns to some of the key issues.
In the meantime, I should emphasize that we are seeing broad-based employment gains in the Savannah area. Nearly every sector is adding jobs. 
 
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401. 

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