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Banking on Holly Days
Cultural and holiday events might be the key to sustaining the local economy through hard times

’Tis the season for local businesses to try and figure out a way to attract holiday shoppers away from competing national chains and the lazy allure of e–commerce.

“We certainly would like to have a positive attitude and believe that Christmas won’t be called off this year,” says Michael Lepper, President of the Downtown Business Association, with a laugh. “We’ve had our hits. Christmas was down last year from previous years, but we have to remain positive and hope for the best.”

As the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds retailers of the luxury of bygone boom years, with the economy still foremost on everyone’s mind, the stakes are even higher for local businesses this year. Holiday retail sales are projected to see a decline of about one percent nationwide, a minor improvement over last year’s 3.4 percent drop according to the National Retail Federation. About two thirds of Americans say the economy will affect their holiday plans, with over 80 percent saying they’ll spend less this year, a study conducted by the NRF found.

With the pressure on to make the most of a bad situation, the Conventions and Visitors Bureau is teaming up with downtown businesses to try and put some cheer back in the holiday season with its ambitious two–day Savannah Holly Days program, formerly known as The Holiday Frolic.

The event, which will have traffic on Broughton Street blocked off from Lincoln to Montgomery for the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving, will be part holiday market, part winter wonderland, and a lot of great chances to check out what is happening downtown.

“A lot of the merchants are onboard. It’s giving people who want to avoid the super shopping centers and the malls a chance to come back downtown and shop local,” says Erica Backus, a member of the CVB’s Public Relations Department.

The Holly Days event will include all the perks of winter, minus the brisk temperature, like a skating rink in front of Leopold’s Ice Cream (the artificial ice won’t melt, but is still skateable), and piles of artificial snow in Reynolds Square.

“It’s an opportunity for kids that have never even thrown a snowball to come out and have some fun,” Backus says.

There will also be a wine tasting, local merchant booths, live entertainment, and a variety of holiday film screenings – some outdoors, projected onto the fa ade of Il Pasticcio, and the rest screened on Saturday in the Lucas.
There will also be a visit from Santa, located at the 24e furniture store, ready for wish list requests from kids and to pose for a few pictures as well.

24e owner Ruel Joyner is excited to be at the center of the action, and looks forward to spreading some holiday cheer, particularly after the success of last year’s event.

“Were you there last year?” he asks. “It was the biggest event that downtown had last year, other than St. Patrick’s Day. It was fantastic.”

Joyner is glad to be a part of the support system for the community of local businesses. Although some business owners are hesitant to predict what might happen this holiday season, or set expectations of success too high, Joyner has one expectation that everyone is hoping he’s right about.

“The expectation I’ve got is that we’ve got a lot of caring people around the community and they’re gonna shop local and support local businesses,” he says. “We believe in shop downtown, and we’re not gonna give anybody any reason not to be down here.”

The event will showcase a lot more than just Broughton Street though, and businesses from all across the downtown will be taking part in the festivities, from art galleries to the Girl Scouts.

“People have an opportunity to explore Broughton Street merchants as well as other stores and vendors from around town that are coming out to participate,” says Backus.

“We’re glad they asked us to participate because we don’t have a storefront on Broughton, but we can help bring some people our way,” says Thu Tran, co–owner of the Red Clover Boutique on Montgomery Street. She says their plans for the weekend include showing off a variety of handbags, jewelry and other gift–appropriate items at their booth, while handing out fliers good for a discount at the store, to try and get people back there to check out some of the other items they carry.

Although parking downtown is often an issue, the benefits of filling Broughton Street with holiday spirit seem to outweigh the loss of parking spaces from blocking off traffic.

“In my opinion it allows easier access,” says Backus. “The parking garages will be open for free and it kind of gives you an opportunity to avoid all the vehicular traffic and walk and do your shopping in a festive environment.”
The Holly Days events will be the first of many more holiday events to come, including the Wright Square Holiday Open House the following weekend.

“It gives [people] the opportunity to shop in and support their neighborhood businesses – and have fun doing so,” says Gary Hall, spokesman for the Wright Square Merchants’ Association. He estimates that about 4,000 people stopped by their event last year.

Although they are fun for the businesses and visitors alike, events like these, as well the City’s diverse cultural offerings are playing a crucial role in sustaining the local economy through hard times.

Cultural events and organizations inject over $46 million annually into the local economy according to a 2007 study conducted by Americans for the Arts with participation from the City’s Cultural Affairs Department. They also support the full time equivalent of over 1600 jobs locally.

With the bevy of events going on in the last few weeks, including the Telfair Art Fair, the Children’s Book Festival, The Blues and BBQ Festival, SCAD’s deFINE Arts Festival, and several theater productions, many business owners were glad to report that business was already booming on the weekends, even if it was still slow during the week, mostly thanks to the increase in foot traffic provided by the event attendees.

The City of Savannah, through the Cultural Affairs Department, has spent over $900,000 per year for the last several years, helping local organizations put on events throughout the city.

The City is one of the major sponsors of the highly successful Children’s Book Festival, and although City money doesn’t directly fund the Blues and BBQ Festival, or the Telfair’s Art Fair, both the Coastal Heritage Society and the Telfair receive City funds for other events they produce, as does SCAD for the film festival.

According to the Americans for the Arts study, that spending helps generate over $2.9 million per year for local government through increased tax revenue.

Although cultural spending has increased steadily over the past several years, with budget issues looming, the City may not be able to sustain its generosity through 2010. No final budget has been set yet, however, the issue of cultural spending is on the agenda during next week’s City Council retreat where the budget will be front and center.