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CITY TALK: Let's be optimistic about 2017

Savannah seems to have entered the new year with a curious mix of apprehension and optimism.

Count me among the optimists, although it probably wouldn’t take much to send me to the dark side.

As I’ve argued here before, the U.S. economy is almost certain to fall into a recession within the next few years. If that happens sooner rather than later, we could see a sudden and painful pause in several booming sectors of the local economy. My guess, however, is that the next recession won’t happen this year.

So what will be the big City Talk stories of 2017?

I’ve been closely tracking the local employment boom in recent years, and I’ll continue that work in 2017.

For the past few years, we have been adding jobs at an unsustainable pace that’s considerably faster than the rate of population growth. I’m curious to see if job growth eventually stagnates, which could spell trouble for the local economy, or if we simply return to a slower, more sustainable pace of growth.

City Talk will also be paying close attention to public policy issues that made news in 2016.

Mayor Eddie DeLoach and the current city council have been in office for a year, but City Manager Rob Hernandez has only been on the job for a couple of months. Yes, there were significant public policy accomplishments in 2016, including new alcohol and food truck ordinances, but the heavy lifting is still ahead of us.

It’s vital that Hernandez and the council members find ways to balance tourism growth with residential quality of life throughout the downtown area. I’ve been writing about this general issue and have been publicly advocating for greater residential density in historic neighborhoods for the past 16 years.

We have now hit a tipping point. All signs point to continued growth in tourism, and that means more hotels, which are incentivized in a variety of ways by longstanding public policy.

By the way, I love tourists. I’ve spent a lot of time walking along the Bull Street corridor over the holidays, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see so many international visitors – families from all over the world. It’s wonderful to live in a place that so many people want to visit.

But we need more downtown residents to balance out those additional tourists, and we need reasonable restrictions and requirements for new hotels.

At the same time, we need to incentivize residential construction, including affordable housing, and other types of commercial development, including retail and office space.

It seems very likely that we’ll see a long-planned overhaul of the city’s zoning code in 2017, but we need more than a new zoning ordinance to find the right balance.

Of course, there are many benefits to the ongoing tourism boom, including the boost that those visitors give to the local restaurant scene.

In 2017, we should see the opening of Chef Sean Brock’s Savannah location of Husk, and several prominent local restaurateurs have new projects in the works.

And, of course, crime will be one of the biggest stories this year.

Savannah has historically had a very high crime rate per capita, and the homicide rate climbed even higher in 2015 and 2016.

We’ve been averaging about one homicide per week over the last two years. As I noted in a column near the end of 2016, the number has dropped in recent months, but we’ll need to see a sustained decline just to get back to the bad but average numbers of 2014.

There might also be some upside surprises in 2017.

City Manager Hernandez recently hinted at the possibility of major tech upgrades for the city, but at this point I’d consider it big news if I got timely water bills and could pay them electronically like I’ve been doing with other bills for years.

Investment has been surging in the Bull Street corridor south of Forsyth Park, so maybe 2017 will be the year, at long last, for something good to happen with the old Sears building on Henry Street or with similarly underutilized properties near the core of the city.

As Savannah grows and garners more international attention, we might attract another major manufacturer in 2017.

Or maybe we’ll see the formation of an ambitious community development corporation that will focus on neighborhood development.

Of course, we could see some downside surprises in 2017, but let’s not speculate about those right now. I hope your new year is off to a good start.

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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