FOR MANY locals (and the occasional wayward tourist) the name Garden City has resonated with a certain irony stemming from the municipality’s overwhelming industrial presence and distinct lack of manicured flora.
A new plan, however, is underway to overhaul the image and design of Garden City that will hopefully lend some truth to its moniker.
At a press conference held Jan. 22, Garden City officials, alongside Governor Sonny Perdue, unveiled a progressive plan for the not-so-distant future that will, among a laundry list of projects aimed at promoting growth in the area, relocate their City Hall and establish a new city center that won’t stand in direct competition with the growth of the port.
“I applaud the courage of local leadership,” Gov. Perdue said at the press conference. “This is good news for Georgia, good news for Savannah, and good news for Garden City.”
For years, the port has grown at an impressive rate, and the Georgia Port Authority for all its terminal facilities (Columbus, Bainbridge, Brunswick and Savannah) has increased its total tonnage by 17.5% in fiscal year 2008 alone.
But this growth has also created quality of life issues in and around Garden City, where residents must deal with the increased number of trucks, trains and storage facilities that grow in tandem with the continuing success of the port.
“Garden City has found itself having gone through a transition in its character the more the port has grown,” explains Johnson over the phone last week.
“The bigger the port has gotten, the more the ancillary industrial components that come with it have grown. If you’ve driven down Highway 21 or Highway 25 along the port recently, then you know what I’m talking about.”
Further complicating matters was the location of Garden City’s City Hall, which sat on the last parcel of land east of Main Street that was not owned by the port—a civic thorn in the proverbial side of the port’s outward expansion.
The port had made offers to purchase the property several times over the last half decade or more, but the price remained a sticking point, stemming to a large degree from the fact that Garden City is the second largest municipality in the state of Georgia with no property tax, which meant the City would need to generate enough money to purchase land and build a new City Hall from the sale of the old City Hall property.
Brian Johnson took over the position of city administrator two years ago, and although he is quick to dismiss any credit for facilitating the sale of the City Hall property, it was after a meeting between him and Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Doug Marchand where an initial agreement was reached to increase the price of the deal in exchange for a timely exit.
“I went to mayor and council, and the mayor agreed that we could give up time for money,” Johnson says. “We agreed to vacate the premises two years after we closed, and in return they gave us a very fair number for City Hall.”
The plan was not greeted with open arms, and many were resistant “because [City Hall] has always been there,” says Johnson. “The concerns we had were from residents.They said ‘you’re abandoning a certain part of the city.’”
However, he and mayor Andy Quinney fostered a greater vision for the future, something more than just the construction of a new building to house the City’s government. “[The mayor’s] vision was to build a downtown,” Johnson explains. “Garden City doesn’t have your proverbial downtown where you can get out and walk around, with all the public aspects of it.”
After a trip where mayor and council toured comparably sized cities around metro Atlanta, they agreed to create a new, mixed-use downtown area on a lot of land within Garden City limits situated just south of I-16, on Dean Forest Road near Southbridge.
“It’s a perfect location because I-16 is a line in the sand for us,” Johnson says. “Everything north of I-16 has a direct or even indirect influence from the port. South of I-16 was a historically undeveloped part of the city, and we were able to start with a clean slate.”
The new 40-acre city center will include improved access to downtown Savannah as well as the “megasite” located at I-16 and I-95, and accommodate more than 800,000 square feet of commercial, residential and retail space.
At the press conference, officials unveiled an ambitious plan which includes the new mixed-use city center, the new City Hall building, a police academy, a visitors center, a Southside Fire Department administration building and a proposed West Chatham Library.
In addition to the physical structures, Garden City will also re-brand itself, and as of last week had welcomed a new city seal, portraying a silhouetted family standing before a pastoral nature scene with a ship passing along the river. The old seal featured an artists rendering of the port as viewed from across a marsh.
If everything goes according to plan, the new City Hall will be open by August 2009. “It has to be, I’m being evicted from the old one in August,” Johnson says.
One factor no one planned on was the recession, which has hampered some development of the new town center. “We’ve had tenants that would have already been going vertical with their building,” Johnson says. “But on the eleventh hour they decided to wait because they wanted to be cautious.”
Although some of the town center may not fill in as quickly as once expected, officials have been careful with their end of the investment and aren’t in any direct danger from the recession.
“Given the fiduciary responsibility of our past mayor, council and city managers, we had a very robust savings account for us to start with,” explains Johnson.
As an end result, this project is about much more than putting some gardens back in Garden City — it’s also about putting the best foot forward for the area as a whole.
“Savannah is the big ticket in town,” says Johnson. “But we want to live up to our responsibility as one of the municipalities in Chatham County to help supplement their efforts. The more people that come to the area, we all win, Garden City included.” cs