In many respects, St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah shows the city at its best.
In the coming weeks, we’ll see a host of traditional events — formal ceremonies, family gatherings, celebrations of heritage. Some events will be solemn and religious, some will be raucous and secular, and many will fall somewhere in between.
But St. Patrick’s Day brings controversy too, especially regarding the defined festival period in the days before and after the holiday itself.
Many readers of this column weren’t out partying in Savannah in the 1990s. Many of you were too young to drink back then, and many of you didn’t even live here.
So if you fall into one of those categories, you’ll have to take my word that the crowds were much bigger and the partying much crazier back in the 1990s.
Actually, you don’t have to take my word for it.
Consider a little of the history. In 1999, largely because of concerns about crowd management, city officials controlled access to River Street and required the purchase of $5 wristbands for anyone who wanted to drink alcohol outside.
For the record, I began writing this column in 2000 and have been consistently critical of bureaucratic efforts to restrict access to public spaces and impose fees for activities that are legal and free throughout the rest of the year. Still, when I remember the crowds on River Street back in the 1990s, I can understand why officials wanted to have better control.
According to a 2013 article by Lesley Conn in this newspaper, there were 84,800 wristband sales during the 2001 St. Patrick’s Day festival period. The festival period was just two days that year — Friday and Saturday. So that number doesn’t include the large Thursday night crowds, and it doesn’t include the revelers in the City Market area or anywhere else downtown.
Officials eventually nixed the River Street wristbands for a variety of reasons, but for the past few years a coalition of business groups and public officials have mandated the purchase of wristbands by anyone who wants to consume alcohol in a much larger festival zone.
According to an article last week by Eric Curl, wristband sales were between 70,000 and 80,000 in each of the last three years. Two of those years were four-day festivals, and one was a three-day festival.
So how did we go from 84,000 wristband sales in two days on River Street to less than 80,000 sales in three or four days across a dramatically larger area?
It seems like that there are a variety of factors that contributed to the decline in festival attendance.
Almost certainly, the decline was in part due to the restrictions imposed beginning with the River Street wristbands and gates in 1999.
Before I continue, it’s worth noting that some local folks are glad to see smaller crowds and fewer public safety concerns during the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. If we want to shrink the festival even more, we can create additional bureaucratic barriers, like this year’s doubling of the wristband price from $5 per day to $10 per day.
Who’s willing to pay $10 per day to do something that’s free every other day of the year? Many visitors, especially those for whom drinking in public is a novelty, won’t think twice about the $10 fee. Also, those who are desperate to get blindingly drunk probably won’t balk at the higher price.
But the increased wristband cost is another barrier for average local residents — the people who want to enjoy a little of the party, who want to have a couple drinks, who want to get in and out of town safely.
Yes, I have heard the endless argument that there’s no other way to pay for cleanup, police, entertainment and the like. That’s a weak argument. Other cities have far larger and more costly public festivals that don’t require individual attendees to buy wristbands at streetcorner stands.
And it’s worth adding that the wristband sales aren’t simply covering costs, but also generating additional revenue for other events throughout the year.
The proposed increase to $10 per day per wristband fits into a broader pattern.
As the downtown economy and business landscape have increasingly catered to tourists, many area residents don’t feel like they are welcome or even wanted in the downtown area.
The increased wristband fee comes on top other policy proposals — removal of on-street parking, price increases for on-street parking, a proposed fee added to sales-tax eligible transactions — that would further discourage local residents from coming downtown.
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.