In my opinion, the city should not spend one more dime on anything — not $140 million for a new arena, not for green dye to spruce up the Forsyth Park fountain for St. Patrick’s Day, and definitely not travel expenses to send city aldermen to costly National League of Cities conference in far-away cities — until all citizens feel reasonably safe walking with their families in Savannah’s public places, like City Market, a scene of horror and bloodshed July 4.
But my opinion is worth the smallest molehill of beans when it comes to big capital project like the arena. What matters is the voters’ opinion. And a majority of Chatham County has already decided that it wanted to hike local sales taxes to raise the money needed to build a new arena on city-owned property in the city’s westside, near the intersection of West Gwinnett Street and Stiles Avenue, which some consider a combat zone.
But this is one time when the public’s wishes must be respected. This project should go forward. It’s not just a matter of good politics, it’s also a matter of state law, to respect the public’s wishes and to prevent double-dealing politicians from taking millions in SPLOST money to pay for their own pet projects or to reward their supporters.
Mayor Eddie DeLoach is right to stand by the arena and the voters’ wishes.
The ‘Canal District’ mosquito tour
Last Thursday, I was among a dozen or so reporters and photographers who toured the city’s proposed “Canal District” west of downtown — a semi-industrial area that many visitors and residents generally avoid, unless they take a wrong turn or wrong exit off I-16 or get invited by City Hall. And no wonder — there’s not much there, unless you drive a city garbage truck, and are headed to the City Lot to park your rig for the night.
I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the city’s dog-and-pony show scheduled in a hot, muggy, mosquito-infested area that seemed unfriendly to man or beast, or journalists in vans or mayors in air-conditioned pickup trucks.
Instead, to put it bluntly: I liked what I saw. I came away mostly supporting what the city is trying to do. The vision of turning a long-neglected area of Savannah — including two under-utilized and under-appreciated features: The city’s magnificent red-brick Water Works building constructed in 1892 as a showplace, and the long and winding Springfield Canal, which was once part of a grand plan to connect Savannah’s port with the Gulf of Mexico until the railroads killed the dream — has considerable appeal and suggests great potential.
Stretch the city
First off, Savannah has limited space for quality growth. It’s blocked by the river to the north and by anti-annexation sentiment to the south. That leaves the east and the west. On the city’s eastside, the plans to develop Savannah River Landings, and the former Hitch Village public housing project show excellent potential. And that’s on top of the magnificent work being done in the area of the old Kehoe Iron Works.
Why not stretch the city where it can be stretched to create more pockets of appeal and prosperity?
The eastside appears to be rocking along pretty well. The city’s westside? Except for the Canal District project, not so much.
The opposition to this project — that area is too dangerous, it will never attract private investment, blah blah blah — is no surprise. I’m guessing that long-time residents have heard this sort of nay-saying before. Like back in the early ’70s, when then-Mayor John P. Rousakis and members of City Council proposed spending $7.3 million to build a 1.5-mile plaza along the city’s waterfront.
Restoring city’s riverfront was a hard sell, too
In 1973, the city’s waterfront was a tumble of rotted wharves, boulders and trash. Much of this prime real estate was used as a dirt parking lot. Most of the commerce along the waterfront consisted of seedy, dimly lit bars that mommas and daddies warned their daughters not to frequent and where young men who were seeking such female company along with adult beverages flocked to, as the dim lighting made it hard to accurately check ID cards.
But Rousakis, who was a superb politician, managed to sell the public and the federal government on building the riverfront plaza, which was now carries his name and will be 38 years old this October. But perhaps the real heroes of this saga were two local architects, Eric Meyerhoff and his partner Robert D. Gunn — through their firm Gunn and Meyerhoff (now Gunn, Meyerhoff &Shay). Rousakis wanted to turn the riverfront into a vast parking lot. Meyerhoff went to the mayor to talk him out of it and turn it into a pedestrian area. It worked. Gunn and Meyerhoff got the job of designing the plaza.
The city’s contracting rules back then were more efficient and clear-cut than today’s rules: Put simply, what the mayor wanted, he got. There was no need for time-consuming bids and report writing. Just get it done.
Meyerhoff first got married and went on a honeymoon to Europe; specifically Copenhagen, Oslo and Amsterdam. He spent hours strolling their waterfronts for ideas.
When he returned to Savannah, he put those ideas into action. The plaza took about four years to complete. I’d say everyone got their money’s worth, and then some.
Now, fast forward to today. Many people are skeptical of the Canal District project, or building a city arena in an area viewed as buggy and crime-infested. Similar fears threatened to sink the riverfront plaza project. But that project turned out magnificently for Savannah and fueled the city’s robust tourism industry.
The Canal District project has the potential to turn out the same way. It has the backing of the mayor and a talented visionary architect, Anthony Cissell of Sottile & Sotille.
Make a lot of scratch: Sell naming rights to city’s new arena
The grand vision calls for a 9,300-seat arena — I propose that the naming rights be sold to the Off! Insect repellent company for a lot of scratch, and trust me, the Off! Arena is a natural fit, especially if the city can also attract a new arena football team — the Savannah Skeeters. It also calls for canal boats filled with happy tourists hoisting cool drinks and soaking up the scenery along the nearby Springfield Canal.
It’s not much to look at now, but with enough tequila, who knows? It could resemble something as inviting as the canals in San Antonio.
Speaking of the mosquitoes, those of us on the media tour kept checking on the mayor’s chief of staff, Martin Sullivan, to make sure the winged oppressors didn’t carry him away for a snack. City Manager Rob Hernandez showed why he’s got the brains to be a city manager when he ditched his necktie and the tour, after a muggy and sweat soaked two hours.
City canals an untapped resource
This area’s network of canals, now mostly used to combat flooding, are an untapped resource. While other cities like Atlanta have unused or abandoned railroad lines it can put to productive public use — see the wonderful Atlanta BeltLine — Savannah is unique with its canals. It’s good to see them used for more things than flood prevention. The canal levees also offer plenty of space for walkways and running and bicycle paths. Some of the leafy areas around the canals are flat-out gorgeous.
Pete Shonka, the assistant city manager who has faithfully bird-dogged this project through several mayors and multiple city managers, has an optimistic vision that compares Savannah to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and its network of canals. I don’t know where he gets his glasses, but I hope he has the correct prescription.
Water works building an ace
However, by trying to remake this watery public property into something with a higher and better use, the city is playing the cards it has been dealt. That’s smart. And in that poker-playing context, the city’s Water Works building is an ace of spades.
As Cissell explained it, this building, which has walls about six bricks thick, was once part of a cutting-edge technology that was amazingly ingenious for its time. As Savannah was expanding southward at the cusp of the 20th century, it needed to meet the demand for more water if it wanted to grow.
City fathers built a big pump station at Stiles and Gwinnett to draw water out of the aquifer and pump it to where it was needed. The pump was driven by huge steam engines, fired by the city’s garbage incinerator, built next to the pump house. You can still see the incinerator’s red brick smokestack poking above the building.
The Water Works Building was once “the pride of the community,” said Cissell, who may be the Eric Meyerhoff of today. Plans call for it to be restored and converted into an event venue and meeting space. Today, it’s mainly used as covered parking for the city’s fleet of street sweepers, meaning its true value is mostly wasted.
Fortunately, there appears to be plenty of on-site parking spaces, as many Savannahians probably won’t venture into this area and park in the neighborhood for a concert or a canal boat trip or any other event unless they’re arriving with a tank battalion.
Don’t surrender progress to the creeps
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Savannah shouldn’t let itself be limited by reckless creeps and knuckleheads who shoot guns into crowds and who do not value life and seem to have no hope. Don’t let the criminals stop progress or prevent Savannah from being a better place with an improved quality of life.
Yes, fight crime. But Savannah should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time — invest in a safer community and a better future. With SPLOST money already available, there’s no reason to bug out.
The Canal District seems to be a long-term project of at least 20 or so years, so today’s generation may not be the biggest beneficiaries. But that’s like the Rousakis Plaza, too. The biggest payoff didn’t come in the 1970s, it came later and is still paying off.
The question of how the city plans to pay for Canal District, on top of the SPLOST funds, seems to be an open one, and the money answer could be a big stumbling block in the future.
In that case, the Off!Repel DEET City Arena has an even better ring to it.
Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News. email@example.com