The Savannah Civic Center is a piece of junk. It's always been a piece of junk.
Born out of not one but two original sins — the demolition of the stately and beautiful Municipal Auditorium on the same site, and also the wanton destruction of one of Oglethorpe's squares — the Civic Center was cursed by karma from the beginning.
It's only become more embarrassing over the years. There has never been a Golden Age of the Savannah Civic Center.
There's no question, none, that Savannah desperately needs a new civic center of some form or description. People have been saying this for at least half the 40-year life of the current Civic Center — a poorly designed, blah box with technical and aesthetic characteristics that became obsolete soon after the ribbon-cutting.
While it would seem that the logical solution is to demolish the current Civic Center, provide underground parking and build a state-of-the-art facility on top of it — perhaps restoring Elbert Square in the process, using the rebirth of Ellis Square as an example — logic doesn't always rule the day.
The City is currently mulling over alternate sites. A leading contender is a parcel on the Westside — not to be confused with West Chatham or Pooler —in a largely industrial area known for its high rates of crime, blight, and poverty. Not to mention the occasional rotting egg smell of the nearby International Paper mill.
These socio-economic issues deserve our serious attention, and I don't want to sound like I'm trivializing them (though the rotten egg smell is probably there to stay).
But the idea that you can spur grassroots development by plopping down a brand new $80-100 million facility amidst boarded-up strip malls, storefront churches, shotgun shacks, barbed wire and bleak industrial sites is a really bad one.
It's not that West Savannah doesn't deserve economic development. It does, very much so. It's just that a new civic center is the wrong type of development.
Despite the high dollars involved, choosing an arena site in order to spur localized development in a particular area is small thinking. Cart-before-the-horse thinking.
You build a civic center to give Savannah a viable showcase for larger events which can compete with, or at least match, facilities in similar regional markets. Period.
You certainly want it located in the most user-friendly, economically feasible place to make that happen, with the most positive impact and the least negative impact.
Micro-level neighborhood initiatives are wonderful in theory, and usually in practice. But they should have nothing whatsoever to do with the decision about where a new civic center will go.
Most of us who love Savannah cherish the city's quirky sense of old-school parochialism. It's one of the things that makes us unique in a cookie-cutter world.
But situating a multi-use entertainment facility based on which individual neighborhood will benefit the most from it is the very definition of parochial. And not in a fun way, like a night at The Legion.
Transportation projects, like U.S. 80 to Tybee or the Skidaway Bridge, are different. Those are intended to serve particular areas.
But a civic center is for everyone.
That's why it's called a "civic center."
Remember the last time the City purchased land specifically in order to spur hyperlocal development: Waters Avenue at 37th Street. Intended for a new police precinct, the City paid well over fair market value for the strip mall, only to become embroiled in small-time beefs with tenants.
(I'm usually an implacable foe of eminent domain. But if there ever was a time for the City of Savannah to assert eminent domain via the Supreme Court's otherwise abominable Kelo v. New London ruling, wouldn't the Waters Avenue debacle be the absolute most perfect scenario ever? Am I missing something here?)
Part of this dilemma is also a natural outgrowth of the City's dependence on Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes (SPLOST), from which the funds for a new civic center are supposed to originate.
One of the more unsavory aspects of these penny taxes is The List. With each SPLOST comes The List: a closely-guarded lineup of possibilities to spend the jackpot on, a roster of projects that changes with the vagaries of the economy.
And because SPLOSTs are inherently political entities — complete with well-funded ad campaigns from deep-pocketed interests intended to sway citizens towards voting "Yes" on them — The List is also subject to local politics.
Therein lies the rub. Just as in actual electoral politics, with SPLOST politics, votes can be bought. And that's how the odd idea of a civic center on the Westside came to be.
Somewhere along the way, citizens of West Savannah neighborhoods were "promised" a new arena out of taxpayer largesse. That's certainly seems to be their impression anyway. Apparently, as with the fabled political machines of old, money was going to be collected from citizens at large in order to give some payback to reliable voters.
It's vote-buying, pure and simple.
Don't get me wrong. Vote-buying makes the world go 'round. Maybe not literally buying votes with money, but democracy rests on the idea that elected officials will do the bidding of the majority of citizens primarily for the benefit and self-interest of said majority.
But where Savannah puts a new Civic Center is too important to rest on political concerns. Development must come to West Savannah organically, through an enhanced overall economy and tax base, i.e., putting the horse before the cart where it belongs.
Putting a gleaming new facility next to train tracks will only cheapen the taxpayers' investment in a facility that should remain viable for at least the next 40 years — in the way that the current Civic Center never managed to do.
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