It's rare that a positive political development might be called "shocking," but City Council's robust, 7-2 smackdown last week of a proposal to allow double-decker tourist buses was exactly that.
It was shocking both in the unambiguous nature of the vote as well as in the fact that we had become wearily accustomed to our politicians overcomplicating tourism issues (St. Patrick's wristbands, cough) or needlessly micromanaging tourist-oriented small businesses (Savannah Slow Ride, cough).
Yet in last week's vote to deny the petition of the out-of-town bus company — which operates similar businesses in other cities — we saw a carefully considered vote which properly weighed the concerns of the community, the desires of the small business in question, and future precedent. Yay!
Mayor Edna Jackson, in particular, admirably expressed her views on the issue before the vote, in a short speech which covered ground both legalistic and heartfelt. For her, the issue was one of properly enforcing existing regulation before complicating the issue further:
"Before adding any other vehicles to what we have now," she said, "we have to do something about this ordinance where we have so many minutes in between each of the vehicles going around the squares."
In a particularly telling passage — and not just because of the graphic reference we're unaccustomed to hearing from the genteel Madame Mayor — Jackson recalled watching "horses and trolleys, four in a row, going around one square... and one horse urinated! And I wanted to see what they were going to do. Well, the guy had a gallon of water, the horse was moving, and he just poured it... until we get existing policies and rules and regulations straight I can't see us adding any other vehicles. (Someone) suggested we have a moratorium on all this until we can come to an agreement. At this point that's what I think we need to do."
While I doubt she literally changed votes with her words, they did frame and summarize the issue ably and fairly. The meeting also featured a variety of citizen comments, ones with a certain heightened sense of urgency given that apparently the double-decker vote was added to the Council agenda at the last minute, leading to charges of a "surprise attack."
(On learning of the agenda item, the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) issued an "urgent" call to action of its members, saying "we have just confirmed that an attorney for the Boston owners is floating a surprise 'compromise.' She is proposing the buses be confined to routes currently accessible to motor coaches...")
Compromise or no compromise, the strong consensus emerging from citizen comments — and subsequently echoed by most of the politicians on City Council — was encapsulated by the words of one speaker at the meeting:
In all my travels, when I say I'm from Savannah and people say, 'Oh, isn't that wonderful,' I haven't run into a single person who told me, 'You know, I didn't go to Savannah because I couldn't ride on a double-decker bus.' We like tourists, and tourists like Savannah. And tourists like Savannah because Savannah's special, it's unique... And part of what makes us special is the fact that we have a livable unique downtown where things are in scale... the problem with double-decker buses is they're too big, they're out of scale. They just don't fit, they're not Savannah style, they're not our brand.
They're not our brand. Forgive the double entrendre, but that phrase should itself be branded on the forehead, or at minimum the forearm, of anyone with decision making power in Savannah.
Branding is everything. Branding — with an assist from rising fuel prices encouraging domestic travel — is what has made Savannah the tourist mecca it is today.
While the numbers of annual tourist visitors – 11 million? 12 million? – are almost certainly inflated, perhaps bizarrely so, we still must conclude not only that tourism in Savannah is critical to our present and future prosperity, but that too much, too soon is just as bad as too little, too late.
As any corporate veteran — or even alt-weekly newspaper editor — can tell you, a brand takes a long time to build and mere moments to destroy.
Kudos to Savannah City Council for taking the long view.