St. Patrick’s Day means many things to many people. It’s a religious holiday, a celebration of Irish culture, a reason to party, a community-spirited parade, a major tourist draw, a reason to party some more.
I would argue that all of those are authentic aspects of the holiday. We can try to restrain the drunkenness of the partying, but that effort is likely to be in vain given the history of the event.
No matter what we do, the city of Savannah will incur significant expenses for police, sanitation and other services. A new study from the Bureau of Business Research and Economic Development at Georgia Southern University found that increased tax revenues do not cover the cost of those services.
Not surprisingly, the lengthy study found that some downtown businesses see revenues rise during St. Patrick’s Day festivities while others take a hit. The event draws tourists, but it also crowds out others who might have come.
As I read the new study, I couldn’t help wondering where the holiday would be today if we hadn’t started trying to micromanage so many elements of it in recent years.
Interestingly, the new study compared St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah to three other festivals in the Southeast that are much more extensively managed and programmed — Memphis in May International Festival, Chattanooga’s Riverbend Festival and Charleston’s Spoleto Festival.
Spoleto makes for an especially awkward comparison. The 17-day event, which relies primarily on ticketed performances, is comparable to the Savannah Music Festival, but Spoleto’s exclusivity has little in common with the very public nature of St. Paddy’s in Savannah.
Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga is a little better comparison, but still a long way off. Riverbend is an eight-day event, with about 100 bands playing on five stages, including a large main stage on a barge at Ross’s Landing.
We have experimented in recent years with multiple live music stages on River Street and in the City Market area. There have been some excellent bands booked on those stages, but none have even come close to the stature of acts booked for Riverbend, which in 2017 included Toby Keith, The Flaming Lips, Ludacris and Boz Scaggs.
The study and the subsequent discussion among city leaders suggest that we might move toward a more organized and more expensive festival. At the same time, however, officials are scaling the official festival back to just two days this year.
As a longtime critic of the various policies — the gates, the wristbands, the “festival zone” — that have made locals feel less welcome downtown during the festivities, I hope we continue to experiment with a less managed event that keeps the focus on the parade, our great public spaces and the private businesses that know how to throw a party.
City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.