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The rebirth of the Creative Coast
After nearly a year in limbo, the Creative Coast gets back on its feet.
Jake Hodesh

The retail space over looking Wright Square once sold home goods and gifts - picture frames and hand-painted martini glasses. As the new headquarters for the Creative Coast alliance (TCCa), now many hope the space will become the hub for Savannah's creative, small business community and a key component in the area's ongoing economic development as we climb slowly out of the Great Recession.

The organization hasn't been immune to the effects of the economic downturn, and the group that once seemed nearly ubiquitous at cocktail parties and networking events downtown has been whittled from a staff of four down to one - the new Executive Director Jake Hodesh.

After rumors of TCCa's immanent demise began to spread late last year, a group of community and business leaders was convened, known as the transition team, to assess the viability of the organization and offer recommendations for the future direction of its mission and vision.

"How long is it going to take to re-launch and become completely involved in the community again, doing what we do, instead of trying to re-establish what we do?" Hodesh asks, during one of several conversations over the last month and a half. "That's a challenge."

It appears there's finally an answer, and over the next few weeks, the TCCa will re-emerge from several months of hibernation and begin to re-introduce itself to a community that it played a crucial role in shaping since its formation in the early 2000s.

The methodology of economic development in the area was something much different prior to the arrival of the Creative Coast. It was a game of cat and mouse with manufacturers involving relocation incentives, tax credits and mentions of a shorter winter and longer golf season.

While those still remain the tools of the trade, the early days of the organization were spent showing how some of the city's most appealing assets were being overlooked, and how those could be leveraged to attract smaller, creative businesses.

Suddenly, the gospel of Richard Florida was being preached in conference rooms and coffee shops; quality of life, local colleges, walkability and the prevalence of art galleries went from facts of life to marketing tools in pitches hawking the charms of the Hostess City.

Those were heady times in Savannah. The economy was booming, real estate prices were climbing, Broughton Street was being repopulated, and the downtown was experiencing a major renaissance. There was money to invest in a project that would have seemed laughable 10 years earlier.

Incorporated as 501(c)6, the TCCa - originally known as the Creative Coast initiative - was brought under the umbrella of the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA). The organization was unparalleled in its efforts to develop the burgeoning creative class, however, its success was being measured in more traditional terms.

"In an entity like SEDA where your core mission is economic development and where your metrics are capital investment and jobs created, a part of what Creative Coast is doing couldn't fall under those metrics," explains Cathy Hill, Coastal Region VP for Georgia Power and the President of the TCCa's new board.

As the economy declined and the bubble burst, the demands for results were never fully achieved even though new small businesses continued to relocate to Savannah.

"I'm the fruit of the old Creative Coast," explains Radford Harrell, a member of the new TCCa board, who relocated to Savannah with his wife and their respective businesses, Talent Soup and Stir Productions. "We didn't move to Savannah thinking that we would build businesses here."

Even in the down economy, according to the Creative Coast's annual report for FY 08-09, the organization "assisted in the creation or fulfillment of 164 jobs" and "directly assisted 217 local businesses and professionals in matters related to starting, growing and/or sustaining operations in Savannah."

The strength of the organization has always been relationships, however, not strict job creation, but that became its Achilles heel - funders, SEDA and the business community all saw the organization as something different.

"One of the issues with the Creative Coast was that it became so many different things to so many different people that it was hard to keep the expectations in check," explains Hodesh.

Over the last several months, and following input from a public survey earlier this year, the TCCa's transition team, staff, and new board have taken steps to make the organization as independent as possible without alienating it from SEDA and its base.

Re-incorporating, securing trademarks, transferring accounts, and other mundane administrative labors will hopefully help remedy the conflicting expectations and allow the TCCa to focus on what it does best, developing and supporting the local creative community - whether that's ensuring local talent is retained, or making introductions and building relationships for businesses that are here, or thinking of coming here.

"As long as we were in a category of being a job creation entity, we were in the wrong place," says Hill. "What we actually are fits more in the category of community development."

This week, TCCa will take it's first steps back into the community during two flagship events - the 2nd annual Geekend conference, which will draw tech and creative professionals from around the country for three days, and the newly minted Startup Lounge, an exclusive event modeled after an event in Atlanta that pairs entrepreneurs and investors for serious conversations about building mutually beneficial relationships.

Those two will be followed by a series of public meetings on December 8 and 9 that will allow the public to comment on the TCCa's new mission and vision, and share what they would like to see happen with the organization in the future.

"We believe we've built a platform and a framework wherein we can listen to what the people we serve say and do our best to incorporate that with a strategy for the mission and vision that those same people gave us 6 months ago," Hodesh says.

Until the public has had more input, the organization will remain busy, but in limbo. The new space on Wright Square is still mostly empty - a jar waiting to be filled.

There is a conference table and a few chairs. Several weeks ago, there was still plumbing work being done, and the walls were covered with poster-sized pieces of paper - notes from the inaugural board meeting in mid-September.

The office is a blank canvas, waiting to painted with the public's vision. One day there might host events, on another it will be a meeting space for prospective businesses looking to test the waters of Savannah before diving in.

Whatever it becomes, the office itself is a statement about the new incarnation of TCCa - that it is part of the fabric of downtown, and accessible, something it never had on its pedestal near the top of the SEDA building on Hutchinson Island.

"You have street level access, there's something very appealing about having a door and being able to get in touch with a human," says Harrell. "Human contact is the new commodity."

If TCCa was unique when it was founded, particularly in the southeast, the times have caught up with it some. Charlotte and Charleston, among others, have similarly tasked groups as part of their economic development formula, and cities less fortunate in their physical geography are spending millions to redevelop sprawl as parks or mixed use developments.

"Every small and mid-sized level city in the country is working desperately investing a lot of money in organizations like the Creative Coast, trying to make sure they are at the front end of economic development in the future," says Harrell.

The future of our own organization still hangs in the balances, although to what degree its fate is in question still remains to be seen.

Two weeks ago the TCCa faithful were rocked by the news that Fitz Haile, who had been with the organization since its founding, was leaving to pursue private consulting opportunities - a decision handed down in part by fears for the economic viability of the organization, which is funded by the City of Savannah, SEDA and Chatham County, and could not sustain two full-time executives while facing potential budget cuts.

"That was the first extremely hard decision we've had to make," says Hodesh about Haile's departure. "Fitz is extremely valuable and he's done incredible work."

For Hill, a self-described optimist, the challenges of sustaining the organization are a storm that will be weathered, but the greater challenge remains how to deal with organization's numerous opportunities strategically.

"Savannah is going to continue to be a drawing point," Hill explains. "The challenge is to not be overwhelmed, to not over commit, to not be drawn in so many directions that we lose that authenticity."