THIS YEAR’S St. Patrick’s Day celebration comes at a time of both great promise and great uncertainty in Savannah.
Downtown has never been more engaging and more lively with visitors. There has never been such a wide range of retail and eating and drinking establishments catering to such a wide range of tastes.
As you can tell from the array of construction sites around town, the recession is long gone from Savannah. Our economy, or at least the sector of it involving tourism and corporate investment, is in robust good health.
But this very success has many of us questioning the nature of that success, who is benefiting, how we got here, and what do we do next.
While at least a quarter million people will visit downtown for this weekend’s festivities, filling our many hotels, oddly enough for a lot of locals the celebration might not be the dependable cash cow it once was.
Since last year’s celebration, I’ve spoken with several local bar owners who said their revenue was down significantly in 2016. They cited, among other things, the proliferation of cheap beer tents near the waterfront area, which directly compete with brick and mortar establishments that pay taxes and fees all year.
For years, the downtown food & bev community has said they make their entire profit for the year during the few days of the St. Patrick’s celebration. It’s that important.
But this is the first year I can remember when I’ve heard some business owners say they are not looking forward to St. Patrick’s Day, that in some ways it’s now more trouble than it’s worth.
While certainly there’s a bit of hyperbole in that — perhaps more than just a bit — within that sentiment is a grim harbinger for a city with so much invested, both financially and emotionally, in the success of the St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
This year’s wristband price hike to $10, while understandable given the associated costs which need to be funded, won’t exactly help the situation. Each wristband purchase is potentially a meal or a drink not bought from a local business which employs local people and pays local taxes.
Meanwhile, big corporate chains continue to invest here with an eye toward a local system that increasingly favors them over locally owned small businesses.
It’s a problem.
Downtown is now ringed with hotels, many of which have been allowed to rise significantly higher than traditional building designs we’re used to in the historic district.
Like tree branches competing with each other for sunlight, this “race to the top” means the Savannah skyline, especially near the waterfront, is increasingly like living inside a walled city.
Or, as some critics observe, a gated community for tourists.
One of the wonderful things about our St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Savannah is how it celebrates our own unique culture and history, specifically the contribution of the Irish Diaspora to local life and folkways since the colony’s founding.
It began as a completely organic celebration, mostly religious in nature. Its authenticity and genuine roots are prime reasons why it has become so popular for so many visitors for so long.
For as long as I can remember, folks have complained that such-and-such will “kill the goose that lays the golden egg” in Savannah, i.e. our St. Patrick’s Day parade and festivities.
None of those pessimistic predictions quite came true, and Savannah continues to be as attractive to visitors and investors as ever, and more so every year.
Hopefully that will continue, and my own pessimistic warnings will also fail to be fully realized.
It could very well be that downtown Savannah has attained the critical mass necessary to sustain economic health regardless of how overgrown the tourist sector has become.
But the fact remains that for many locals, downtown is becoming a place they, also, just visit.
Tourists in our own hometown.
I was a bit amused to see the plans for the “new and improved” Savannah River Landing. For those of you new-ish in town, Savannah River Landing (SRL) is the great expanse of concrete and soil just to the east of the Marriott.
Over a decade ago, the land was cleared for an ambitious planned mixed-use community which was set to be literally as big as the entire Historic District itself, sharing some design elements with Gen. Oglethorpe’s original town plan.
And then the Great Recession happened. SRL went idle, only recently being purchased by a new developer with a new plan.
The City of Savannah made a rare wise decision in not letting the Sand Gnats talk us into paying for a new stadium for the single-A ball club to go into the SRL space.
However, the newest plan still calls for more of a focus on larger-scale development.
In my mind, I read that as “more hotels.”
In other words, the great sucking sound you hear — of actual residents leaving and/or being priced out of downtown by tourism development, Airbnb rentals, etc. — will probably continue regardless.
Meanwhile, since the recession, the vast momentum of residential growth in Chatham County is nowhere near downtown.
Pooler has exploded, its business-friendly environment attractive not only for residents looking for affordable, safe housing, but for small business owners sick and tired of the runaround and obstacles in the City of Savannah proper.
St. Patrick’s Day will always live in Savannah. It will always be close to our hearts, and will always be a time of great celebration and good times.
But it will also serve as a yearly reminder of how decisions have consequences, some intended and some not.