I’M NOT SURE which is the most fitting analogy for the dilemma Savannah faces right now:
The massive new SCAD dorms on Victory Drive that will be totally empty this coming semester due to SCAD going to all online learning during the pandemic;
Or the news that a new Hyatt is set to be built at the Eastern Wharf development — yet another hotel in a downtown already full of hotels, all now facing varying degrees of occupancy problems.
Both developments, of course, were planned long ago and not really a surprise to anyone.
The pandemic hit the world fast and hard, and made a lot of other plans obsolete, too.
But the massive paradigm shift in shared priorities is the other shoe that hasn’t dropped. Savannah’s learning curve to deal with the ramifications will be steep.
We are all making lifestyle changes in the wake of COVID-19. For the very immuno-compromised, these lifestyle changes can be profound, involving basically total isolation.
For others, the lifestyle changes have more to do with going back-to-basics with regular functions. Gardening, baking bread, riding bikes, getting takeout instead of dining in.
The people and places best able to adapt to this new reality, however long it lasts, will be best positioned for peace and prosperity.
The others, not so much.
In Savannah’s case, a heavy reliance – some would say a marked overreliance – on tourism and on the presence of SCAD students, all in a comparatively densely packed area of town, may come back to haunt us.
The local tourism and hospitality industry already has its current inventory in shock due to the effect of the pandemic. What the return-on-investment projections are for new construction in the hotel/hospitality business – such as Eastern Wharf or the planned expansion of the Savannah Convention Center – I shudder to think.
There is one thing working in our favor, however. And it involves what we don’t have rather than what we do have.
Since gaining that nickname in a 2006 study, America’s so-called “Superstar Cities” have been identified as the places where the vast bulk of job growth happened nationally over the last 10-15 years.
The main Superstar Cities are usually considered to be New York, L.A., San Francisco, D.C., and Boston, with Seattle and Atlanta often added to the list.
If you’ve been following the news, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what most of those cities have in common:
They are now vulnerable locations both for the pandemic and for widespread civil unrest.
How quickly the script has flipped on the Superstar Cities.
Economists will tell you that most Superstar Cities also have in common great wealth disparity due to the limited inventory of housing in their dense and highly desired city centers.
The Superstar Cities also have large service industry sectors specifically to serve the relatively small number of high-income earners who can afford to live in the most desirable areas.
All these traits once considered reliable economic drivers – density, a large service industry, high rents derived from limited housing – become liabilities in an era of pandemic-related economic shutdown and increased social and political unrest.
It’s entirely possible that as Americans go back to basics, they no longer will be drawn like magnets to these increasingly challenging metro areas.
As part of an exodus driven by pandemic-related economic change, they might seek smaller, simpler locales which are easier to navigate and more affordable overall.
Places like Savannah.
Not just to visit, but to start a new life in.
Like the Superstar Cities, Savannah also has great wealth inequity and a shortage of affordable housing.
But we have so far been blessed with an ability to manage crisis, and a continued sense of livability in a world increasingly more insane by the day.
Could Savannah’s future be less as a tourist mecca than as a place for people to come live their best life?
IN OTHER NEWS, Savannah mourns the passing of one of its most influential and iconic citizens.
Emma Morel Adler passed away this past Sunday, age 90.
There are a handful of people about whom you can truly and literally say Savannah wouldn’t be what it is today without them. Emma Adler was one of those people.
Without her, there is no Historic Savannah Foundation as we know it. No Georgia Day celebration. No Georgia Heritage Week. No Massie Heritage Center.
The Lucas Theatre restoration bears her imprint, among many other iconic locations.
She was by turns a journalist, a school board member, a fundraiser, an organizer, an influencer. She lived a long and influential life at the confluence of history and education. She will be missed but her legacy lives on every day, all around us.
If you moved to Savannah because of the history, the charm, the architecture – you moved here literally because of Emma Adler and her life’s work.
Emma follows her late husband Leo, who passed away in 2012, into their next great adventure.