Editor's Note: Savannah's continuing double standard on small businesses

ONE OF the more common sights at City Hall through the years, spanning multiple mayors, is the cringeworthy spectacle of a small/independent business owner standing before City Council, being verbally abused in public for daring to want to invest their money in Savannah.

By now it’s a cliché, but it gets no easier to watch: Individuals, not affiliated with a corporate chain, decide to invest their savings or credit line — or both — in a business venture in one of America’s most lovely cities and vibrant tourist destinations.

They get all the right permits, make sure their zoning’s in order, and genuflect before all the relevant bureaucracies.

And then — often with regards to an alcohol license — some members of City Council put the brakes on the project, insult them for not doing due diligence, imply their goal is to destroy the fiber of the community, and grandstand with a new series of ad hoc, last-minute demands.

All because the small businessperson had the gall to want to put some money back into a community with a 26 percent average poverty rate.

Of course, projects with corporate affiliation continue to sail through often completely unchecked, a long-standing issue which has only just within the past few months received Council attention.

In the meantime Savannah is one of the most famously lax cities in America with regards to alcohol. For example, the City seems to have no problem with Bud Light tents selling $3 quarts of beer on St. Patrick’s Day so young people can walk around puking in the bushes all afternoon.

I don’t recall anyone getting called on the carpet in front of Council for that.

The Stage On Bay is a new venture seeking to meet the demand for a mid-size performance venue bigger than a large club but smaller than the current Johnny Mercer Theatre or the upcoming Westside Arena, which will be about a mile from Stage On Bay’s location in a similarly depressed neighborhood.

Like any such venue it will almost certainly need a liquor license to be commercially viable. Therein lies the rub.

I bring this case up only because I have seen this scenario play out so many times before. It’s like deja vu at this point.

In last week’s liquor license hearing for Stage On Bay, Alderman Van Johnson, in whose district the venue would be, said he has “major issues” with it.

He told CEO Charlie Schmitt, “Good concept, wrong place,” suggesting that Schmitt move it to the other end of the Viaduct in downtown proper.

(This is the same Van Johnson who just weeks before said to applause in Council chambers that the Historic District was becoming “like Disneyland” from unchecked development.)

I’m gobsmacked that Savannah continues to tolerate its elected officials — who often have literally zero business experience — lecturing businesspeople at the granular level about which business model to use, what products to sell, what customer base to target, and what district they can and can’t locate in.

The nearby Hudson Hill neighborhood agrees with Johnson, with residents speaking forcefully against the all-ages venue, its serving of alcohol in a neighborhood with several bars and liquor stores already, and the disruption and type of music and clientele it would bring.

The neighborhood also insists their input wasn’t solicited. Schmitt disagrees, saying “I can’t force people to answer emails and phone calls.”

Meanwhile, Schmitt — wisely or not — has already scheduled a concert by the Marshall Tucker Band as the opening event at Stage On Bay, set for Feb. 3.

Mayor Eddie DeLoach, himself a small business owner, challenged Schmitt, saying, “I think you jumped the gun on hiring Marshall Tucker before you got the liquor license you need.” 

A visibly angry DeLoach told Schmitt he wouldn’t vote for the license if Schmitt didn’t meet with the neighborhood again to assuage community concerns.

“That’s on you,” the Mayor said, ending with an open threat:

“And if you don’t make that happen I won’t vote for it and we’ll have to see you in court.” 

To which Schmitt responded, “With all due respect, I see your point and that’s probably what will have to happen” — i.e., taking the City to court.

I’m not a lawyer, but if history is any guide it’s a case Schmitt is likely to win, with court costs borne by us, the taxpayers.

But I’m not here to agree or disagree with either Hudson Hill residents or Stage On Bay.

I’m here to say it didn’t have to go down this way.

And there’s a way to make sure it doesn’t happen this way in the future.

I agree with what Alderman Tony Thomas said at the contentious hearing: Savannah needs to have a coherent policy which balances the very real need of residents to have input, and the very real property rights of small business investors.

The core problem is this: The City continues to approve or disapprove many projects often on a case-by-case, ad hoc basis, with little standard protocol that small/independent businesspeople can consistently depend on.

As it stands, a vocal minority of residents can often have de facto veto power over small business startups in Savannah.

However, rarely does even a vocal majority of residents have any real sway over a larger corporate development.

And now for the issue of the Westside Arena itself. A vastly larger project in scale than Stage On Bay, with full liquor license capability, the Westside Arena when built will have the potential of neighborhood disruption many orders of magnitude greater than Stage On Bay.

Yet the Arena project was specifically sold to County voters — who are paying for the project at this moment with the SPLOST one percent tax — precisely because it’s an entertainment venue selling alcoholic beverages, bringing investment money into a blighted community!

The double standard is blatant, the lesson equally so: If you have a corporate or government partner, you get the benefit of the doubt and your investment is framed in the best possible light.

If you’re a small businessperson, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt and your investment is viewed as tainted and problematic, and certainly disposable.

The fact that there’s any small business at all in Savannah continues to amaze and impress me. All independent businesspeople here deserve a medal. Seriously.

This is me, raising a glass to you.