CHATHAM COUNTY'S Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax was first passed in the mid-1980s.
It's been renewed by the voters four times since. Voters are being asked to approve or deny SPLOST VI this Tuesday.
For Savannah voters, it's all about the arena: Almost 80 percent of the City's requested funds from this SPLOST will go to a new arena on the Westside, about $120 million worth.
This isn't the first time a new arena has been on the list, but sales taxes are notoriously dependent on the overall economic climate.
"2006 was our banner year — we may never get back to 2006 levels. Frankly we had a lot of cash, and revenues were up," says City of Savannah Public Information Director Bret Bell, referring to a previous SPLOST. "We thought we'd ask for partial funding for the arena and get the rest of the funding through other means. There were other possibilities at the time."
SPLOST V was "a different environment," however. To make up for the shortfall, about $38 million was taken out of the arena pot and put elsewhere. "We wanted to increase funding to projects we could actually build," says Bell.
But this time, full funding for the arena is requested of the voters.
Arena + TAD = ?
Make no mistake: The City sees the Westside arena as more than just an arena.
"Building an arena there is an opportunity to really activate the West Boundary Street/Canal District area," says Bell, referring to recently unveiled plans for a multi-use Complete Streets makeover for the now-sketchy area set to host the arena.
"There's a big chunk of land in close proximity that we feel is ripe for redevelopment, but it will require public investment," says Bell. "Using the arena as an economic catalyst is an important part of the overall arena plan."
The City isn't the only one with plans. The "Canal District" vision includes a Chatham Area Transit (CAT) streetcar loop — one that would not be funded by SPLOST at all but partially through a Tax Allocation District (TAD), similar to the one on the Eastside comprising Savannah River Landing.
"CAT has definitely approached the City with the idea," says Bell, "but right now it's nothing more than idea. We haven't vetted it or done estimates for revenue or properties. It's not been discussed informally or formally with council in any way."
But Nick Doms, co-founder of the Facebook page Reclaim Savannah and a vocal opponent of SPLOST, says the TAD plan is very much intact.
"They definitely know about the complete TAD design. If the City and County were to approve the TAD, CAT would ask for $16 million to develop the River Street street car line and make a loop to Liberty Street, on to Fahm Street, and back to River Street."
Doms says the $16 million would be used as leverage to get federal matching transportation funds in the form of a so-called TIGER grant.
Anti-SPLOST activists advise not only to expect a Westside TAD, but to know it's a form of double-dipping.
"That TAD is supposed to generate conservatively about $84 million. Their intention is to pass SPLOST and secure $120 million for the new arena, then create a TAD of which the arena will be a part. And that's how they will double-dip," says Dom.
"Any excess taxes from the TAD have to be reinvested into the TAD exclusively, thus depriving 90 percent of taxpayers from using those excess taxes," he explains. "Because your arena is already funded by SPLOST, you can use the TAD to actually pay more for the arena."
For an example of an already existing TAD, go no further than the barren, unused Savannah River Landing site. "We pay $1.4 million in interest only on floating bonds for that," says Doms. "The City keeps saying that the Eastside TAD pays for that interest, but the fact remains that we get no return on that investment at all."
Bell counters that TADs are great when done right. "TADs work where you have underutilized property next to a utilized property. In that part of the Westside there are vast amounts of depressed land there pretty close to an economically thriving area of downtown," Bell says.
Simply put, in the City's eyes, the Westside is "prime land with a lot of value and much easier to develop," says Bell. "A lot is happening now west of MLK Jr. Boulevard. And if you look at the west end of River Street, a lot will be happening very soon."
In fairness, voters should know that a new arena may not come at all if SPLOST doesn't pass. "It's difficult to envision funding an arena in another way," says Bell.
Also in fairness, voters should know that SPLOST funds are prohibited from being used to cover operating expenses. That's a whole other ball game.
The current Civic Center
The second part of the arena question is how much longer can we continue to operate the existing arena, within the obsolescent and inadequate Civic Center, now 40 years old.
"Unlike a lot of historic properties, those kinds of arenas haven't aged well over the years," laughs Bell.
"If we were to do what some suggest, and just re-do the arena at the current site, if we perform over a certain amount of work we're forced to make the entire thing fully ADA-compliant, and we'd have to bring everything up to code," he says.
"That would literally require gutting the entire arena, which would end up costing about what we'd pay for a brand-new one somewhere else."
Also, repurposing the current one would give Savannah no arena-size facility for at least two years.
One viable option is to make use of the fact that the Civic Center is built in two portions. The current Johnny Mercer Theatre would remain, and be modernized. The MLK Arena of the Civic Center would be demolished, its land likely sold to the private sector.
The planned Cultural Arts Center near Oglethorpe and MLK would then be adjacent to the still-active Johnny Mercer Theatre, forming another hub for culture downtown.
Cultural Arts Center
"The Cultural Arts Center is fully funded. It received money in SPLOST IV and V," says Bell.
While the Cultural Arts Center would seem to be a nearly shovel-ready done deal, Doms has his doubts.
"The money's been collected and earmarked for the Center, but the City only has $27 million of unspent SPLOST money on hand," says Doms.
"In theory the Cultural Arts Center should be fully paid for, but they don't really have enough money in reserve. The figures don't add up."
The DeRenne project
The City of Savannah has an ambitious project for the congested and long-debated DeRenne Avenue east/west corridor, involving land acquisition and a flyover. How ambitious?
"Completing all phases would cost about $75 million. We asked for $70 million from T-SPLOST, but of course that was defeated," says Bell.
"Federal TIGER funds require a 20 percent local match. Currently we have $13 million from previous SPLOSTs for the east/west corridor. That will get our local contribution."
However, Doms says independent estimates of the project put it closer to a total cost of nearly $400 million. Presumably any difference would be made up by TIGER grants.
"Where were the TIGER funds in the plans last year when they asked for $70 million?" Doms muses. "Plus, you don't get those funds for maybe ten years. But they say $11.8 million from this SPLOST will go 'immediately' to land acquisition."
The DeRenne project "was initially on T-SPLOST as $70 million," he continues. "The same project shows up again one year later, only this time for $11.8 million. So you've acquired that land and killed, by our estimates, about 50 small businesses. You may not start building anything until 2025. That's insane to collect money and just keep it somewhere for future use."
"Actually, the focus of the project is protecting neighborhoods and improving economic development. And it's not just a 'road widening,' as it's been referred to. There's no road widening at all."