THIS PAST WEEK, I was invited, along with the great Tom Kohler, to be on Wayne Waters’ "Savannah Lexicon" show on WRUU FM community radio to discuss the top local happenings of 2018.
Most of you know Tom from his incredible work over the decades with Chatham-Savannah Citizen Advocacy. Though he recently retired from his influential tenure at the top spot with that organization, he remains deeply engaged with the concept of building and sustaining community throughout all walks of local life.
Tom was full of wisdom as always, but one thing in particular that he said struck me as remarkably insightful.
In a conversation about the nature and volume of new development in Savannah, he said that 2018 may have been the pivot point when outside investment, rather than local money, dictated events here.
I’m paraphrasing of course. But his point — with which I concur — is that for years we focused on the patterns of economic and political power locally, about how money and influence in Savannah spokes outward from certain key hubs, all of which until recently were local power brokers (aka the “good ole boy network”).
However, in 2018 it seemed as if Savannah officially got on the map of far-flung investors from all over the country and indeed the world, with access to financial resources generally beyond the wildest dreams of all but the most asset-heavy local bigwigs.
This goes along with another vintage Kohlerism from the radio show: “If we get to the point where we’re selling Savannah’s sizzle, rather than Savannah’s charm, that’s when we know we’re done.”
And one look at much of the new development going on in Savannah does seem to show that it ain’t necessarily charm that’s on sale.
One could argue whether we’re past that point, or just about to reach it. But in any case, I would echo Kohler’s warning.
IF ONE IS inclined toward seeing omens in daily events, a particularly grim harbinger happened last week with the serious blaze at The Olde Pink House, which began upstairs from a Christmas tree setting alight.
While the Pink House vows to repair and re-open, the sheer symbolic impact of one of Savannah’s favorite and most iconic old traditions going up in flames in the last week of a year of tumultuous local change was undeniable.
Many of us have warned all year of possibly irrevocable rends in the fabric of local culture, such as the National Park Service downgrading the status of our Historic Landmark District, to name just one.
The same day of the Pink House fire, another great local tradition, Smith Bros., announced they would close their butcher shop on Liberty Street.
A few days later, Skyler’s Restaurant on Bay Street announced its closure after decades of service to a faithful clientele.
The opening months of 2019 will bring news of still more deeply beloved local institutions also going by the wayside.
It is all shocking to the system, and will become more so. But these kinds of changes have been warned about for quite some time.
THE PINK HOUSE fire also rekindled — please pardon the terrible pun – the controversy over City budget cuts to Savannah Fire and Emergency Services.
In a Facebook post soon after the blaze, the local Firefighter’s Union made the case that the City Manager’s decommissioning of Engine Company 16 and other cuts led to much of Savannah being left uncovered by the need for multiple units to respond to the Pink House fire.
After exhaustively breaking down the timeline of department response and allocation of rescue assets, the post from IAFF Savannah Firefighters concludes:
“Reducing engine companies will ALWAYS cause response issues no matter how the city council tries to spin it to you! We understand this was a perfect storm happening that caused this issue, but it does happen! It will happen again! Luckily, nothing major happened in the areas with little coverage, but we cannot just sit around and HOPE that it will never happen. City council has told the fire dept to cut another company in January. With what happened today, this paints a prime picture as to why that would be a terrible idea.... Please contact your alderman to tell them not to do this...we won’t always be as lucky as we were today!!”
One of the enduring bad tastes in Savannah’s collective mouth from the Fire Fee debacle is the City’s insistence on cutting Fire Services after the Fee was rejected by the public.
It seems more and more like this will become a key issue in this November’s City elections.
Ironically, the people who got into office by campaigning on public safety may lose their seats because they didn’t adequately fund it.