Travis Coles wasn’t literally born in Savannah, but he’s earned the right to the prestigious reader award of Best Savannahian as much as anyone.
Born in Australia to an Australian Air Force officer and a Canadian mother, Coles’s reason for coming to Savannah mirrors a common local story: Gulfstream brought him here.
“In 1989 my dad had retired from the military, and a subsequent job fell through, so he took an offer from Gulfstream,” he says. “That’s what brought us all to Savannah.”
This man about downtown actually spent his formative years in little Richmond Hill, in nearby Bryan County.
“Myself and my three siblings all grew up in Richmond Hill – all four of us have somehow managed to graduate from Richmond Hill High School even though we’ve been around all parts of the globe in the interim,” Coles laughs.
Coles’s horizons broadened when he came out at age 19, in 2003.
“Living in Richmond Hill, we saw Savannah as the big city. And Club One is where I could be myself, and not have to look over my shoulder,” he recalls.
“I remember standing out in front of Club One and having people driving by yelling ‘Faggot.’ It was alarming, but also gave me resolve.”
He’s been general manager of Club One for the past 11 years. His association with the iconic LGBT club came about serendipitously.
“I got a job there on my 21st birthday,” he laughs. I was at the bar and a guy bought me a drink. As the show ended, I was about to leave, and he said, “No, you’re fine, I’m the owner. If you’re interested in a job, I’ve got a bartending position open.”
That was 15 years ago. Since then, Coles has witnessed the dramatic transformation of Savannah from a quirky regional entity into a world destination.
“It’s been incredible to watch. When we were here in the early ‘90s mom and dad would never come downtown. To see it come back so completely is inspiring,” he says.
A failed bid for City Council Alderman At Large in 2015 taught Coles some important lessons, and only served to increase his interest in public service.
“First of all, If you’re going to run a campaign, don’t start it the last day of qualifying,” he laughs. “Two months isn’t enough time to run a citywide campaign.”
He also learned that a lot of citizens have a minimal amount of civic knowledge.
“So many people have no idea what district they’re in And so many people don’t realize you can’t vote in the City if you don’t live in the City. I had so many people who live on Wilmington Island say they voted for me – I was like, uh, no you actually didn’t,” he remembers.
“But you have to educate the votes without being condescending – you don’t want to be the mansplainer,” he laughs.
Coles’s current civic role is nearly as controversial as being on City Council – he’s a Commissioner on the Metropolitan Planning Commission.
“It has been an educational experience. It gives you a better understanding about both sides of all arguments,” he says.
“Attorneys are crafty about working for their clients. Some things we are triumphant on as a board, where we send development proposals back to be improved. And sometimes we don’t. And a lot of the times when we don’t send a project back, it’s not because we don’t want to, it’s because we may not have legal standing to stop it.”
The most controversial vote recently had to do with a proposal to demolish 80 percent of the historic Seaboard Freight Station.
“It hurts, it really does. I don’t want to see it gone – they could have done something interesting with it. That was a tough decision to make,” he says.
As for the controversial proposed Arena, Coles has an intriguing idea.
“If they’re going to go through with the Arena, they should turn the old Civic Center into a soundstage. There’s a huge market for one here, and the Civic Center’s already good to go. It’s got giant roller doors, plenty of parking. And then you keep the Johnny Mercer Theatre open as well.”
Currently Savannah “faces a lot of different issues. Chief among them is probably wealth inequality,” he says. “You have a certain number of haves with a lot of money and a tremendous amount of have-nots.”
As for being the reader’s choice in these categories, “People know me from a lot of different roles. I’m at Club One, I’m a realtor for Keller Williams, I perform with Bay Street Theatre, and I’m an active member of Collective Face,” he says.
“But overall, I’m just blown away by winning this award.” – Jim Morekis
Runner-up, Liberal: Coco Papy