SAVANNAH'S 2nd district encompasses the city’s busiest business districts as well as some of it most impoverished neighborhoods, all while accommodating millions of visitors every year. The citywide issues of crime and economic disparity are magnified here, and 12-year incumbent Mary Osborne faces three challengers in the Nov. 3 election.
Native son Bill Durrence graduated from Jenkins High in 1965 and worked as a photographer at the Savannah Morning News before joining the Army. After his service, he returned home to pursue a Masters’ in photography from UGA and traveled around the world teaching for Nikon.
For the past 25 years, he has lived downtown, countering efforts to bring in cruise ships and truck LNG through the city. He serves as Ward Captain for his neighborhood and volunteers with the Tourism Advisory Council, the Historic Savannah Foundation and the Downtown Neighborhood Association’s Board of Directors.
It seems like the 2nd District is the city’s toughest to govern, since it’s home to residents on the extreme ends of the economic scale as well as one of the city’s primary economic generators, tourism. How do you reconcile all of these interests?
The way I talk about the 2nd district is that it’s the economic and cultural heart of the city. This is where most of the businesses are, this is where government is, this where tourism happens—it’s a complex mix. It’s fascinating—and also like the Chinese curse about living in interesting times.
Economic development is the core of its success. But what does that mean? It’s a tough nut. We’ve got to talk about specific neighborhoods. The city’s 26 to 28 percent poverty rate is just an average—some of the neighborhoods on the Eastside have a 60 percent poverty rate, and that’s where the crime is coming from.
Everyone agrees that crime is our most critical problem. If you’re in the affluent parts of the district, the response is better policing. In the less affluent neighborhood, the policing doesn’t come up: The first thing they say is jobs.
We what we need to is address both. We need to do whatever we can to work with the SDRA, SEDA, the Chamber to start seeding projects on Waters Ave., on Wheaton, on, MLK, on Montgomery.
There’s been the Waters Ave. Beautification Project that has been all about planting and sprucing, and that is all well and good. But if that work is done in a place where you don’t have viable businesses, no one is going to take care of it. In six months or a year, it’s waste of money.
How would you deal with crime?
We’ve got to fix the police department. We need it fully staffed with good officers, so that they can actually just do the job of community policing instead of being so short-staffed that they go from call to call to call.
I think Chief Lumpkin is on the right track, but I’m pretty sure he’s not getting the support he needs from city government. Ten months to create a pay raise? It’s absurd. It’s not like we don’t have the money.
This year we’re even going to have a tax increase, even though the city has made a big point of saying that there isn’t one. It’s disingenuous. What would be accurate to say is that there’s no millage rate increase, but according to the State of GA we did have a tax increase this year because the tax digest is larger and property evaluations have gone up.
But we can’t police our way out of our crime problem. The real long-term solution is going to come from creating better opportunities for these young people who see guns and gangs as their only option.
One of the big topics this election is how crime rates relate to poverty. How would you address the current discussion about the tourism industry’s chronic underpayment of its service workers?
The hospitality industry—not just in Savannah, but everywhere—is going to pay low. You’re just not going to pay someone a high wage to make beds—that’s just the reality of the skill set. What’s unfortunate is that you could hire these people full time and provide some benefits, but the pay scale is always going to be near the bottom.
It is frustrating to many people when they hear that the state of Georgia has forbidden municipalities from changing the minimum wage. People who are up in arms about the minimum wage should also be raising Cain with state legislators, because at $5.15 an hour, it’s one of the lowest in the country.
There’s nothing we can do about minimum wage here other than encourage better jobs. The hospitality industry is just not likely to ever pay great. We’ve got to create a foundation for jobs that do pay better.
How do we do that?
We start to invest in some 21st century technology, like fiber optics, so we’re a draw for technology industries. I was doing some canvassing the other day and met a young woman from Seattle, so I asked her what she thought of our broadband access here. She said it was like she’d gone back to dial-up.
Would you support a city measure that created free wi-fi downtown?
I don’t know about free, because users should have to help pay for it, but I think the city can do the seeding . Chattanooga is doing an amazing job attracting businesses because they’re created a citywide fiber optic network. Savannah should support the development of that kind of infrastructure. How we charge for it is something else. I do support a certain amount of free access so that you can sit in a square and log in, and that would add value to the tourism industry. They could even help pay for it.
The way we develop this city is going to determine who wants to come here. We’re already an attractive tourist destination. What we need to be is an attractive place not just to visit, but to stay and work. To attract these young, tech-savvy folks who will bring the kind of jobs and entrepreneurship we need, we’re going to provide not only the infrastructure but the quality of life.
That means we have to pay more than lip service to the Complete Streets program; we need to emphasize more safe bike paths. A question that keeps coming up at forums is about infrastructure, and the emphasis always seems to be on roads and paving and flood control.
Those are important things, and there are legacy projects—like the 19th-century brick sewer lines just uncovered on the west side—that we’re going to have to deal with. But we also need to be managing our money in a way that develops additional parts of infrastructure.
The incumbent for District 2, Mary Osbourne, has served three terms. What would you do differently?
There’s an incredibly strong anti-incumbent feeling right now, in both the black and white communities. Everyone is frustrated with the current city council.
I knocked on one guy’s door yesterday—he didn’t give me any time to say anything other than that I was running against Mary Osborne and he said “You got my vote!”
She’s simply part of it of the larger problem, it’s a broader issue with council in general, and that’s a failure to do any kind of real planning. There’s no long range thinking.
One thing that could be done better that would solve a lot of our other problems immediately is to sit down with the really good people who already work for the city—people like Kevin Klinkenberg of the SDRA and Charlotte Moore at the MPC. These folks are terrific and are passionate about what they do and they have an amazing amount of skill and knowledge that we’re not using.
Let’s figure out a 30- or a 50-year plan of where we want to be. Then every decision we make is based on whether it supports our goals. Right now we have no goal. Everything is done without context.
Right now crime is the most pressing concern. In the short term, we’re going to have to fix the police. And it needs to be now; no more of this taking months to approve a pay raise.
The economic development part is going to take longer. It takes time to put seed businesses in and have them grow. We need to stay focused on that.