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CITY TALK: Can we learn anything from Charleston's Gaillard Center?

Charleston’s Gaillard Center reopened last fall after a $142 million renovation. I recently visited the 1800-seat concert hall for a tremendous Spoleto Festival performance by the L.A. Dance Project.

Before I say a few things about the Holy City’s wonderful new space for the performing arts, I need to emphasize the distinction between an arena and a concert hall or theatre like our own Johnny Mercer. I continue to see lots of confused discussion about our aging Civic Center’s fate that conflates the two spaces.

The city of Charleston is home to the TD Arena at the College of Charleston, which seats about 5,000, but the major public arena is in the city of North Charleston.

The North Charleston Coliseum has a capacity of 13,000, which is considerably more than our existing or proposed arenas, while the North Charleston Performing Arts Center has a capacity of 2,300.

The North Charleston Coliseum was used for public events on 11 days in May, including four days for commencement ceremonies and six days for South Carolina Stingrays games.

In other words, the primary arena for the Charleston metro area isn’t wedged into the city’s famed historic district, and it seems odd to me that so many Savannahians object to the idea of building a new arena less than a mile away from our current one.

Anyway, back to the Gaillard Center.

Exactly half of the $142-million price tag was paid by tax dollars. The other half was privately raised. The new complex holds many city offices, so the final price includes much more than just the performance hall.

The new Gaillard Center seats 1,800, considerably fewer than the 2,700 accommodated by the old Municipal Auditorium. The new performance hall is horseshoe shaped, with three balconies and spectacular technical specifications.

Sure, the new space is experiencing some growing pains, as evidenced by the awkward barrier in front of the removable seating close to the stage and by fire alarms triggered by stage smoke during one of the L.A. Dance Project’s performances.

I also think the Gaillard interior has too much pastel color – it looks better in photos than in person – but the performance hall seems poised to serve the needs of Charlestonians (Chucktowners?) for several decades, at least.

The Johnny Mercer Theatre here in Savannah, which was built several years after the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, seats about 2,500. According to the team of consultants who studied the feasibility of a new Savannah arena, the Mercer needs about $20 million in investment to modernize it, including “Code, Life Safety, and ADA compliance.”

But the list of potential modifications doesn’t seem to address the Mercer’s notoriously inconsistent sound quality, nor would the changes bring the average seat closer to the stage.

In other words, $20 million seems like a lot to invest in the Mercer if we still won’t have a facility that compares favorably to newer performance halls around the country. On the other hand, we don’t have enough SPLOST money earmarked even to cover the full cost of a new arena, according to the consultants’ estimates, much less for a major overhaul of the Mercer.

Charleston has a considerably larger and wealthier metro area than Savannah has, which translates into more funding for major projects, but maybe there is still something we can learn from Charleston’s heavy reliance on private donations for the new Gaillard.

If Savannah wants to be a world-class city with modern performance spaces, we need to think more deeply and creatively about ways to reach our goals.


Savannah waits for food trucks

My trip to Charleston prevented me from attending Savannah’s recent Food Truck Festival, but I heard plenty about the big turnout, which spawned both excitement and frustration.

Some of the social media commentary about the event suggested changes for “next year,” but let’s be clear that a successful annual festival is not the goal of the impending food truck ordinance.

In fact, having seen the long lines for food trucks at several music festivals, it seems clear that the personal service provided at food trucks really isn’t compatible with extremely large crowds, unless you round up a whole mess of food trucks.

Sure, food trucks that sell items like hot dogs or hamburgers might have meat already on the grill, but that’s not the general routine.

If you’ve tried an excellent food truck, like the locally based Chazito’s Latin Cuisine, you know what I mean. It might take a few minutes to get your order, but it’s going to be fresh, hot and scrumptious.

As I’ve noted here often over the years, we’ve dithered on a food truck ordinance for far too long. So here’s hoping that we move ahead soon with an ordinance that gives some key protections to brick and mortar establishments but also gives food trucks an opportunity to succeed.


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