THIS ISSUE brings the second part of a multi-part report from Marcel R. Williams drilling down into the details of the controversial proposed Westside Arena.
How do I know the Arena is controversial?
Part One of Williams’ report last week — the overview — was one of the most shared and read news items Connect Savannah has ever published.
The interest shown in Marcel’s work is not only due to the extraordinary effort he has put into it. It is also, I believe, due to the pent-up reader demand for more independent news and information about this massive project — dubbed by Alderman Van Johnson (in whose district the arena will be) as “the most significant public undertaking” that Savannah will ever attempt.
That is quite a statement. Even if it’s a bit of politician’s puffery, stop and think about that for a minute.
Just as there is a great appetite in the public to hear more debate about the project, so the project itself will provide many opportunities for examination and discussion — even beyond Williams’ ambitious reporting.
With regards to his piece, there have been a few recent attempts by people in City government to attack the messenger. In my mind that only reinforces my initial sense that we are providing a public service in publishing the material.
Williams’ work stands on its own in examining the more documentable and objective aspects of the arena project.
A more political — and therefore more subjective — question about the arena is the impact on nearby residents who have been promised that they will enjoy great economic development from it.
Specifically, the question of how many will be able to continue affording to live near it at all.
I’m of the mind that “gentrification” can be an overused word by people who don’t understand it. Often, it simply means “long overdue economic development.”
But there is such a thing as gentrification. For example, when large numbers of disenfranchised or underrepresented people are forced to become economic migrants due to said development – and cannot enjoy the fruits of development — that is when it happens.
And while it’s far too early to tell, that might just happen in Alderman Johnson’s district, despite promises to the contrary.
In fairness, there are examples of projects similar to this one that indeed are successful in promoting economic development. But even when the success comes — far from a given with our own arena project — the gentrification issue tends to remain.
Serendipitously, the Washington Post ran a lengthy piece over the weekend titled “Ballpark Boomtown” about the undeniable success of Nationals Park, built a decade ago in a run-down, blighted section of D.C. along the Anacostia River.
It includes interviews with residents who fought the $600 million construction back in the day, but who have since completely changed their minds about it.
Since Nats Park has been built, the Post reports, the number of households in that area has nearly quadrupled. But with that has come a more than doubling of the average income of the area. One assumes that income belongs to folks who just moved there and can afford it, rather than longtime residents.
One of the nearby D.C. residents says, “This is real nice, but they just wiped out where we grew up. Now nobody can afford it here, not even the people who move in — they have to get four or five friends to live with them to pay the rent.”
Tellingly, the piece includes an intriguing reference to the Nats Park site as a “developer’s dream” because there were “hardly any residents to rise up against the addition of people and traffic.”
This in my mind is why the City is so adamant in developing both the east and west borders of the Historic District — it’s easiest for the developers.
The tail wags the dog, again.
Some other lines from the Post piece are also almost eery in how they echo similar issues on Savannah’s westside, for example of the area in D.C. also having “no place to eat and no grocery store.” Now, there is a Harris Teeter and soon a Whole Foods near Nationals Park.
There does seem to be a measurable decrease in crime in the neighborhood of Nats Park, which echoes a similar rationale for the Savannah arena. But simply moving poverty out of one area to another isn’t the answer to crime — it just makes it no longer that particular area’s problem.
Now obviously, Savannah isn’t Washington D.C.
And a minor league hockey franchise — such as what is envisioned as an anchor tenant for the Westside Arena — is a far cry from a major league baseball franchise like the Nationals which plays more than 80 home games a year.
You can’t make an apples-to-apples connection between Savannah’s Westside Arena and Nationals Park, or really any other municipal project, and it’s unfair to do so in either direction, pro or con.
But the point remains that even if the City of Savannah’s remarkably optimistic projections for the Arena and surrounding “Canal District” come true, a lot of folks who live there now might come to regret the decision.
In any event, while Johnson might be exaggerating the scale of the Westside Arena project, if he is it’s not by much.
Just the cost of the Arena alone will be roughly equivalent to the entire discretionary annual budget of the City of Savannah.
The Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) which will fund the building of the Arena will not go to funding any of the outparcel development, road widening, or parking garages which must be associated with it.
Nor can SPLOST funds by law be used for any operating expenses.
Keep in mind that all this added expense will come in a budget environment which City Manager Rob Hernandez has described as “structurally imbalanced,” with not even a recent tax increase able to really come close to solving the problem.
The journalist in me loves that the Westside Arena provides so much fruitful and interesting material. But the citizen in me remains wary of the outcome.