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Editor's Note: Trailblazing a new Canal District
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AS MOST OF YOU are probably aware, nine more people were shot in Savannah over the last three days, two fatally.

That’s as we go to press; the number may be higher by the time you see this.

(Tuesday update: Yep, two more shootings.)

(Wednesday update: A toddler killed when apartment building sprayed with bullets.)

This was also the first week that new Police Chief Jack Lumpkin takes over the reins. I wonder if the Chief is already feeling nostalgic for Athens.

“We need the community’s help to combat this violence,” said Chief Lumpkin in a special press conference this past Monday addressing the shootings, during which the phrase “state of emergency” was suitably used by police.

“Gaining their trust is paramount. It’s not going to happen in a day or two, and it may not happen in a month,” he said. “But I am going to work hard to restore that trust.”

He’s absolutely right, of course. But unfortunately I think the community has heard that one before, and is expecting more dramatic action this time around.

In any case, it’s become clear that the gun violence is not so much a spike or anomaly, but apparently now the default mode for much of Savannah.

Crime has now joined workforce development as the major obstacle to future economic growth in Chatham County.

Which brings us to the resurgent plan, first unveiled a year ago, for an ambitious “Canal District” on the city’s Westside.

The well-articulated plans make use of existing infrastructure to form a multi-use, pedestrian and bike-friendly urban trail system designed to join downtown proper with the site of the new $120 million Westside arena complex.

As an added plus, the proposed Canal District would be sited largely on land already owned by taxpayers.

For a vision of a very successful similar project, look to Atlanta’s Beltline, an inspired repurposing of old rail beds into heavily-used walking and bike trails connecting dozens of neighborhoods of the city.

The eastern corridor of the ATL Beltline is complete and has been a smash hit from day one. On a typical weekend it’s nearly maxed out with traffic, whether folks out walking the dog or cyclists running errands or families enjoying the day. Importantly, the traffic continues through the week.

Just last week the western portion of the Beltline broke ground. When it and the remaining portions are finished, the Atlanta Beltline will comprise 33 miles of trails and 1300 acres of parks, and connect nearly 50 neighborhoods in a vast circle—a much more pleasant Doppelganger of Atlanta’s infamous I-285 perimeter.

The Beltline’s economic impact is visible and tangible throughout Midtown and Intown Atlanta. It’s an inspiring vision of just how reinvigorating these kinds of projects can be when done right, in the right communities.

Retail establishments and restaurants with rear exteriors facing the trails now specifically market to people on the Beltline, inviting them to rack their bikes, take a break and stop in and shop or eat.

Adjacent apartment buildings use convenience to the Beltline as a major marketing tool, and it works. The Beltline is spurring a residential boom of young professionals in Midtown Atlanta.

Pop-up businesses, exhibits, urban farms, and yoga classes happen along the Beltline’s length. It has its own evening lantern parade. You can even buy Beltline merch.

Simply put, in its short lifetime the ATL Beltline has already transitioned from mode of transportation to a destination in and of itself.

But here’s the thing: The Beltline is a destination for residents. While you can indeed take a special bus tour of the Beltline—yet another barometer of its success—it’s not a tourism project per se.

Atlanta’s reclamation project is suitably huge, but as our News Cycle columnist John Bennett has detailed, smaller Georgia cities from Athens to Columbus to Rome are enacting similar repurposed greenway ideas.

Wait—doesn’t Savannah already have plans for a Beltline of sorts, on the Eastside?

Why yes, that would be the Truman Linear Park Trail, a million-dollar project for which funds are already available.

The idea was for a bike/pedestrian path running from Daffin Park to Lake Mayer. But it’s been bogged down in the typical Savannah city vs. county squabble of who will bear financial responsibility for maintenance (though the City apparently does have enough money on hand for Council to have voted itself a future pay raise).

It’s not the most encouraging precedent for what might happen if Canal District plans are approved and funded by taxpayers.

But an even larger issue for a mixed-use trail in Savannah is crime. And Eastside and Westside, the two locations for Savannah’s mixed-use trails, both happen to run through the areas of town most plagued by gun violence.

The key to the success of any urban trail/greenway project is frequent, regular use at all hours of the day by residents. That is certainly the biggest deterrent to crime on Atlanta’s Beltline.

But if the primary vision for Savannah’s Canal District is just to help tourists find their way to the new Arena, then it will have failed before it’s even begun.

The critical mass of regular dawn-to-dusk resident users needed to deter crime will not be achieved, and the Canal District will soon look more like Savannah River Landing than the Atlanta Beltline.

Don’t get me wrong—it would be wonderful to see the Canal District help spur economic growth in an organic fashion, as the Beltline has done.

But who will be the first to blaze the new trail? SCAD students? Westside residents? Tourists?

Young professionals? What young professionals?

And who will patrol the Canal District to ensure safety? Chief Lumpkin’s undermanned, overtaxed force, about to be split in two with the merger’s breakup?

And hey, how about a nighttime lantern parade through West Savannah? Sound like your idea of a good time? How do you think that will work out? As well as in Midtown Atlanta?

Who knows? Maybe it’s just what the doctor ordered.

Simply put, the Canal District is as risky a gamble as the Westside arena itself.

Then again, taxpayers have already voted to fully fund the arena. So do we go all in and fund a Canal District too?

Do we build on success a little bit at a time? Or do we just say screw it and build everything as quickly as we can, as seems to be the current sentiment of your City leadership?

Maybe the better question is: What does the track record show us?