WHILE THE parade and festival themselves are both safe, the liquor-fueled, fall-down-drunk party that surrounds St. Patrick's Day? Probably doomed.
And those wristbands and gates everyone was so proud of? Turns out they don’t work and are expensive to staff.
Members of the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce and the Savannah Convention and Tourism Bureau pleaded with city council members Jan. 28 at the pre-meeting workshop to make St. Patrick’s Day policy changes. Council members agreed something needs to be done, but some said it might be too late to make changes this year.
For business owner Pino Venetico, change can’t come soon enough. Partiers come into his high-scale restaurant, Il Pasticcio, and crowd into the restrooms.
“By law, I have to provide a restroom for everyone,” Venetico said. “The restrooms get filthy, and people can’t stop throwing up.”
There are few food sales during the festival. “The restaurant is empty,” Venetico said. “My regular patrons are gone.”
Those partiers who do eat at Il Pasticcio are problematic, too. “People eat in the restaurant and throw up at the same time,” Venetico said. “What we’ve created is more of a cesspool.”
Hotels must contend with rowdy, messy, destructive guests, and the festival is more akin to a spring break destination, said Mark Dana, senior vice president of the Prince-Bush hotels, who represented the hotel industry.
No one benefits from Savannah’s festival, he said. “What we’ve got are young kids who get enough money together for a hotel and beer,” he said.
Even bar owners are disgusted with the crowds. Ansley Williams, owner of six River Street establishments, including Spanky’s, fully supports recommendations made by the chamber and CVB. “I’m hard pressed to find a business owner who is opposed,” he said.
Williams has survived 35 St. Patrick’s Day festivals and says the event has changed for the worse over the years. “It is gross, it is ugly,” he said. “We need to take it to Ground Zero and bring it back up.”
City officials agree the problems are severe and getting worse every year. “It takes a whole lot of coordination and logic,” said City Manager Michael Brown. “The question is always, exactly how do we do this?”
Representing both the chamber and CVB, chamber President Bill Hubbard outlined suggestions members have made and emphasized the problem is not with the parade. “The parade has a wonderful committee with ownership and control,” he said. “The event is fun and safe for everyone.”
Over the years, the festival has grown and moved outward into the community, Hubbard said. “There is no committee to manage it and claim ownership,” he said.
The changes recommended are: eliminate both gating and wristbands, because they’re expensive but don’t work; eliminate beer sales in public plazas and let resident businesses benefit; and change the entertainment offered to attract a calmer crowd.
Last year, CVB President Joe Marinelli shadowed police Chief Michael Berkow for five hours during the festival and witnessed the many problems first-hand.
“He spent almost all this time on River Street,” Hubbard said.
After the festival, the chamber’s 2,200 members were surveyed about their thoughts on festival policies. It became obvious that gating wasn’t working. “In reality, you can’t keep everyone out,” Hubbard said.
Soon, owners and managers of restaurants, hotels, tour companies were adding their thoughts. “What we heard continually was public safety questions. The volume is not manageable,” Hubbard said.
“Restaurants close, hotels remove valuables from their rooms, tourist attractions close,” he said. “Residents 30 and up avoid downtown from 7 p.m.-2 a.m. It’s a much younger crowd. It’s not the same festival it was 10 years ago.”
Hubbard said the city has a unique opportunity to make changes and fine-tune them. “It won’t be until 2012 until we go back to having St. Patrick’s Day on Saturday,” he said. “We have three years when it will fall mid-week.”
Mayor Pro Tem Edna Jackson expressed concern about the timing. “I think the flaw in the whole process is that the information came to us very late,” she said. “This needs to be studied more. If we pull the armbands this year, there might be even worse problems.”
Alderman Tony Thomas argued that the council can’t act until without public input. But he agreed that changes are needed.
“We’re not just talking about River Street and City Market,” Thomas said. “The debauchery is happening in the squares just as bad or worse.”
Thomas referred to the controversy when the council considered abolishing to-go cups. “We need to have a public discussion and hear from everyone in the whole community,” he said.
He also questioned the purpose of the requests. “What’s the real motive here?” Thomas asked. “Is it clean up everything without alcohol? Do you think the beads are all going to go away? That we’ll all watch the parade, then stroll down River Street and go home?”
Alderman Jeff Felser said he considers the requests for policy changes this close to St. Patrick’s Day “an ambush.”
“We had a retreat on St. Simons where cooler minds could prevail. A month ago, we had our retreat at Tybee Island. There was an entire day when someone could have made a presentation,” Felser said. “Let’s include the people of Savannah and do it right from the beginning.”
Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague urged the council to make the changes. “The festival has become disgusting,” she said. “It is a totally different festival than it was. If we don’t make changes, we’re going to have more problems.”
The council agreed to establish time for a public hearing at the upcoming Town Hall meeting on Feb. 10 at 7pm at the civic center.
The recommendations already have the support of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee. “We’re in complete support of the police and will do whatever we can to make the event better,” said John Forbes, chairman of the parade committee. cs