How Savannah drove me loco

Jon Kolko

MY NAME IS JON. I lived in Savannah and was a tax-paying home owner in Chatham County for five years. I also ran the Savannah Underground website, which is dedicated to tracking and publicizing local live entertainment and arts.

I moved to Savannah from Austin, Texas, for a job with SCAD. I’ve subsequently moved back to Austin.

A number of factors played a role in my return, but I can’t make any more clear that the number one reason I left was because of the ridiculous lack of live music and culture in Savannah, and the apparent desire by your city government to thwart even the most basic attempts by individuals at improving those “scenes.”

Giving Richard Florida the key to the city doesn’t offset base issues such as: Those in power in Savannah are making decisions which don’t appropriately reflect the desires of its citizens. From the absurd whining about allowing the Firefly Café to serve wine with meals, to the ridiculous, blanket removal of people under 21 from live music venues, to ordinances “for our own good” which are so selectively enforced as to unfairly penalize some while letting others slide, Savannah is living up to its reputation as a tourist trap with a hillbilly attitude.

Alderman Van Johnson may feel personally responsible if Locos winds up having to close its doors (although I bet he won’t). But those like him, including the City Manager and the Mayor, are complicit in pursuing an economic structure for your city that supports transients at the expense of locals.

Savannah is a wonderful place to visit, but a horrendous place to run a business.

For proof, just ask any number of the non-corporate shop holders on Broughton, Congress or Bay Streets, about the “support” they get from the city to keep their businesses afloat.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the vast majority of businesses that can afford to play downtown are large corporations, like Banana Republic — or even smaller chains like Locos. A small, home-grown shop like The Jinx can barely afford to pay their rent.

I write this not to just stir the pot, but to give at least one data point on the negative results of the decisions your city leaders are making: I moved away from Savannah, and took my “vast” amounts of disposable income and discretionary spending with me.

I also took my creativity, which Savannah claims to be so enamored with, as well as my intellectual capital.

And I left because that city couldn’t get its act together to support a decent live music scene with a varied selection of choices, or provide restaurants that don’t just serve grouper in demi-glaze, or host stores that aren’t selling “I TOOK THE MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL TOUR OF SAVANNAH AND I DIDN’T GET MUGGED!” bumper stickers.

When I moved to Savannah, I was confident the city had all the pieces in place to become a “mini Austin” (much like Portland, Seattle, or Madison): a huge assortment of college kids, a quirky atmosphere, great weather, beautiful architecture, a “strip of bars”, a relatively confined downtown area, and more.

The reason Savannah hasn’t “tipped” to become one of these truly buzzworthy cities is because the local government is still quibbling over the definition of a restaurant, or if kids can wear wristbands without getting too drunk to walk.

Stories like this really do make your city the laughing stock of anyone from out of state, yet the solution to these problems is so, so, so easy:


Take your laws, and rules, and regulations, and rip them up. End the noise ordinances downtown; remove the under-21 rules for kids entering bars; let any store sell any mix of alcohol and food and live music and godknowswhatelse they choose.

I can hear Michael Brown’s reaction already: “But think of the property values!” (said in the tone of “But think of the children”). Relax. Your property will be just fine, because Savannah will attract exactly the type of people that want to live in a city where the government is both small and competent.

A city like this will attract the “creative culture” all year round, not just during March. Underage drinking won’t shoot through the roof, either. And the city won’t fall apart at the seams.

Ah, to dream. In the meantime, I’ll just be happy that I have Sixth Street, packed with live music, and the annual South by Southwest Music Showcase, and the Austin City Limits Festival.

I’ll continue to visit Savannah, spend a few hundred bucks, and leave. And Savannah will continue to stagnate at the size it is, with the level of revenue capped at how many tourists can fit into the Hilton, and stories like this will continue to appear.

It’s too bad, because Savannah really is a great city, with all the Southern charm in the world.

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