THIS YEAR'S St. Patrick’s Day festival will feature a few changes that city officials say are designed to make the event safer and more fun.
On Feb. 12, the Savannah City Council voted to end gating and push back the curfew from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. Other than that, the festival will operate exactly as it did last year.
Kenny Hill, director of the Savannah Waterfront Association, sent a letter to the council proposing a compromise. “The essence of the letter was that we were willing to work with the stakeholders to make it the best event ever,” he said.
“We’re willing to do what we have been doing to ensure that everyone is on the same page so we can move forward to the 2010 and 2011 events.”
At the council’s Jan. 28 workshop, representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and several businesses asked for changes in festival policies. They said the event had grown too large, too expensive and too rowdy, causing several restaurants, museums and other tourist attractions to close down during the festival. They said since the 2009, 2010 and 2011 events fall in the middle of the week when attendance will be lower, it’s an ideal time to make changes.
Aldermen argued it was too close to the festival to make changes, and said they needed public input. On Feb. 10, a crowd of 200 gathered at the civic center and asked the council not to make the changes that were proposed.
In an e-mail sent after the council reached its decision, Hill said the Waterfront Association has been working toward a resolution since concerns were first raised, believing it was the best time to explore options to managing the festival in a way that would result in less excessive behavior and a safer environment.
But also at stake is possible lost income, and in the end, the “hybrid” festival was proposed. Wristbands will be sold in 4-5 kiosks along River Street, and there will be 2-3 “beverage stations” and food vendors on the plaza.
At the public hearing, City Manager Michael Brown listed the complaints the council had heard. “The participants are an increasingly younger crowd, there is a great deal of congestion and a lot of alcohol,” he said. “Even though Savannah is known as a party town, we have to work and have ownership and responsibility for this.
“Businesses are reporting to us this is not always good for them,” Brown said. “We take pride in the beauty of our city. Our city spaces are not beautiful at the end of this event.”
A common theme heard throughout the public hearing was that local business owners support the idea of local vendors. John Price of Riley’s Championship Barbecue asked the council to look into the feasibility of giving local vendors first shot at spots on River Street and issuing licenses that couldn’t be transferred.
Several in attendance said restrictions added to the festival over the years have dampened the fun. Wilmington Island resident Stephen Jordan told the council he is only 25, yet regularly attends the festival with friends in their 30s and 40s.
“If you make it more restrictive people are not going to spend as much money if they can’t go to the streets and be able to walk around,” he said.
Ending outdoor alcohol sales would mean “unimaginable” lines at bars and restaurants, Jordan said. “People are going to be highly ticked off,” he said to loud applause.
“If we can’t spend money, we can’t give you sales tax,” Jordan said.
Susanne Guest, owner of The Jinx, said she believes a happy medium can be reached. “If it’s gotten to the point where it’s the second or third largest festival in the country, that’s something we should try to preserve,” she said.
“A lot of what happens is gross,” Guest said. “But for that amount of money, I can put up with gross for a couple of days.”
“Let those who pay high taxes and have establishments, if they wish, have some outside facilities in serving food and alcohol,” Jim McLaughlin said. “It should be their privilege. They’re the ones carrying the load. We should not allow transients to come in and for a few dollars, go down and sell alcohol.”
A man who identified himself as “Chris from Bloomingdale” said he has worked in the beer booths. “We card everyone who looks vaguely underage,” he said. “It is an alternate revenue stream and I’d hate to see it ended.”
Cab driver Michael Lucas said he worries about the loss of revenue if changes are made. “None of us know what’s going to happen this year,” he said. “We’re operating in a down market. People are not going to spend money like in other years.”
Billy Cope also earns extra income from working the St. Patrick’s Day festival. “There’s always going to be people who do these things,” he said. “But so many other people are going down there to be responsible. It’s not the circus some would have it to be. I don’t think the many should be penalized for the actions of the few.”
Roy Jackson expressed concern about the expense of the festival. “If we don’t generate the revenue to pay for it, those of us who live in other areas will pay for it,” he said.
“I’m also concerned about the notion of removing the wristbands and barriers,” Jackson said. “If anything, we want to move the barriers further up from River Street and look for options to capture more folks.”
Bonnie Walden of Bay Street Blues has had repeat customers complain about changes made to the festival. “They come in and say it’s just no fun anymore,” Walden said. “What we need to concentrate on is making it fun for people. I don’t feel we’re putting our best foot forward.”
Walden supports leaving bars open until the usual 3 a.m. closing time. “Who expects a party in Savannah to wind up at 1 a.m.?” she asked. “It’s not a very good way to treat the tourists. We need their money, we want their money, so let’s have a party and make it a good time.” cs
One vendor said he used to hire friends and family to help with vending during the festival, but new vending ordinances have ended that. “The last couple of years each person had to have their own license,” he said. “I’m actually paying employees to go into business for themselves. I want be able to do what I did for 15 years, but I can’t afford to do that anymore.”
Alderman Jeff Felser said the public hearing proved what the council already knew. “Tonight has proven to be an example of democracy working at its best,” he said. “We had an opportunity tonight to hear a complete dichotomy from what we heard at a more closed session at city hall.”
Felser reiterated those remarks at the regular council meeting, “This is a good compromise between the ‘do-somethings’ and the ‘do-nothings,” he said.