FOLKS around here often talk about "two Savannahs."
Now, I’m not a fan of sweeping generalities since I don’t find them productive when it comes to solving our common problems. For the sake of discussion, however, let’s entertain these Dickensian parallel universes:
One Savannah is characterized as privileged, mostly but not exclusively white and profit-obsessed to the point of the exploitation of the other, which is largely defined as poor and African American but also includes artists, activists, revolutionaries, freaks and anyone who doesn’t own a pair of khakis and a blue blazer.
(It’s true that my position allows me to stumble around between both, although doors are closed in my face all over the place.)
Again, nothing is ever that simple. But as I climbed up and down the Stone Stairs of Death and kicked around the cobblestones this week, Savannah’s polarities have never seemed starker.
From the arched windows of the ivory penthouse, it sure looks like the best of times: Unemployment is less than five percent, Ben Carter’s Broughton Street is booming and Savannah is the sweet-drawled darling of international travel destinations.
Down among the peons and construction dust, however, it couldn’t get worse: The poverty rate remains at a solidly embarrassing 28 percent, culture is fast becoming corporatized and street crime is so prevalent it blends in with the scenery.
I started out at Wednesday’s groundbreaking for the Plant Riverside District at the west end of River Street, an industrial twilight zone where most of us have never set foot unless we were looking for trouble.
While the prevailing sentiment is that the last thing we need around here is another damn hotel, it’s fair to say that Plant Riverside isn’t going to be another revolting brown box.
Architect Christian Sottile and his team have retained the most enchanting features of the 100+ year-old abandoned Georgia Power plant owned by heralded hotelier and Effingham County homeboy Richard Kessler, who has undeniably contributed to Savannah’s highfalutin reputation with his other ritzy developments.
The compound adds almost a half-acre of public space along a part of the river that has been closed off for decades and is supposed to bring more than 700 jobs —and not just the same crappy minimum wage, go-nowhere tourism gigs.
“These are all kinds of positions, including a lot of managers. We’re going to provide extensive training that will carry people through the rest of their careers,” promised Kessler, who must pay at least $10.25/hour to fulfill his part of a $10M state historic tax credit agreement and has hinted that some of the entry-level staff might earn as much as $15/hour.
“We’re going to pay people a living wage.”
From the view up high, the conviction is genuine that this can’t be anything but beneficial for Savannah. Amidst the celebratory tunes of local musical success story Velvet Caravan, denizens of the city’s more rarified faction stepped past the still-crumbling ruins to hear the details of the deal. Politicians, bankers, corporate executives and other local titans marveled at the phenomenal vision of the venture, and Visit Savannah’s Joe Marinelli declared he’s already fielding requests from national event planners.
Still, when Mayor Eddie DeLoach lauded how the project will transform the northwest quadrant of the historic district, I couldn’t help but turn my head towards the public housing residents of nearby Yamacraw Village and note that this metamorphosis will mean displacement for them sooner than later. (In my mind, a vision flickered of two Savannahs drifting apart, but only one drifting like a sad polar bear on an ice floe.)
Also weighing down populist enthusiasm for the project is the $33M public bond issued to fund Plant Riverside’s fancy parking structure (which will be wrapped in hotel rooms and virtually invisible, a highly acclaimed aesthetic precedent set by former Charleston mayor Joe Riley).
While City Attorney Brooks Stillwell assured that Kessler is shouldering the actual cost of the garage and then some, others argue that it’s inappropriate for the city to offer its good credit to a corporate entity that can manage its own capital.
“Cities shouldn’t lend money for private enterprise. Bonds are for building something that will be of public benefit—a new police station, a big public park, even administrative buildings,” admonishes local political consultant Alicia Scott.
“It’s dereliction of fiduciary duties to lend out bonds to another hotel, of all things,” she says.
Scott contends that if we’re going to go into debt, it ought to be for higher-level job creating ventures or investment in infrastructure that provides more than a measly 125 public parking spaces, but says her biggest problem with the garage bond is that it doesn’t stimulate the local economy.
“The council could have stipulated that half of those 2500 construction jobs had to come from minority and women contractors, but it didn’t,” says Scott. “There’s a real lack of imagination in the leadership.”
Kessler has stated that his new hotel complex will likely generate far more for the city than the projected $35M in tax revenue over the next decade, but critics don’t want to bank on speculation.
“I just didn’t see the positive public impact,” explains Chuck Feagain, a local mortgage loan officer and the garage bond’s lone dissenting vote on the five-member Downtown Savannah Authority, the agency that borrows money on behalf of the city.
“Even though it will be repaid, using our bond capacity for a garage citizens can’t really use isn’t a good investment.”
Feagain also disapproves of the political capital spent in Atlanta on garnering those state tax credits, which—when added to $16M in federal historic preservation tax credits plus the bond—equals a total of almost $60 million in taxpayer funds.
“That’s a lot of public money underwriting a very large percentage of one guy’s project,” says Feagain, who calls Plant Riverside an instance of “regulatory capture,” where government agencies prioritize special interests over the public good.
Speaking of priorities, the City of Savannah’s got a lambasting the very next day, at what will go down as the most exciting council meeting since a couple of alderfolk bumped heads and called each other a-holes.
Here the “other” Savannah—the advocates and the social justice folk who might be able to afford a night at Plant Riverside one day if they got a Groupon and slept 12 to a room—voiced their outrage at the proposed slashes to funding for arts programming and social services in the 2017 city budget.
Pressed up against the wood paneling of the crowded chamber, I couldn’t help but see the two Savannahs in sharp relief. Only members of one sat inside the polished corral, several of who had been present at the groundbreaking the day before, the same folks who gave the nod to a $33 million private parking deck now knitting their brows over $400,000 that funds dozens of organizations that literally put food in people’s mouths and keep kids off the streets.
After the other Savannah’s fiercest warriors connected the dots between arts funding and public safety as eloquently as possibly in two minutes a piece, Mayor DeLoach eventually called for new City Manager Rob Hernandez and his staff to find other places to make up the shortfalls before council votes on the budget in two weeks. (Ooooh, didn’t Mr. Hernandez get a dose of Southern sassafrass when he asked people to pipe down?!)
But there’s more than irking irony in this Scroogey nickel-and-diming.
Clinton Edminster offered the reminder that the arabesque statues atop City Hall are named “Art” and “Commerce,” and it’s important to note those effigies are exactly the same size.
Perhaps the true tale is the struggle to restore balance to the two. Can we imagine building world-class accommodations while nurturing a vibrant cultural and socially progressive climate? Can our leaders grow the cajunas to demand justice for our local work force and public good from developers who stand make tremendous bank from our shared resources?
If we identify with one Savannah, can we allow that the prosperity and growth of the other is to our benefit?
Those are trick questions, ‘cause there is only one Savannah, “a beautiful city and a brilliant people,” to borrow a phrase from Mr. Dickens.
We’ve got the business drive and the creative capital—all that’s left is keeping it together.