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Challenge 2015: Travis Coles, Alderman at Large Post 2

THE POST vacated by Tom Bordeaux is the election’s most crowded race, attracting six candidates from varied backgrounds. We continue our coverage this week with an interview with Travis Coles, the longtime general manager of Club One and a resident of the eastside.

An admitted policy wonk, Coles attended Armstrong State University and has followed city politics closely from both business and cultural perspectives.

Why politics? Why now? Why this race?

I’ve always been politically inclined. I’ve always paid attention to the news—local, national, international. On a local level, working downtown for the past 11 years, I’ve seen ordinances passed that didn’t really make a lot of sense. I’ve seen the City of Savannah make mistake after mistake. I just thought there was no time like the present.

I just turned 32, but I don’t think along the lines of, “Well, you have to wait until you’re well-established or basically guaranteed a win before you jump into the race.” If you want to make a difference. you have to step in and do it.

This isn’t the first Savannah has seen of me. I’ve been involved in various local boards: Savannah Pride, Stand Out Youth, First City Network. I’ve been vocal and visible in city meetings; in particular, about the liquor ordinance that never seems to come about. It’s been changing since 2005.

In terms of downtown current and currency, is the alcohol ordinance the biggest issue?

No, it’s definitely an issue, but our biggest issue is crime. In 11 years I’ve lived in Savannah, I haven’t felt like I could be shot in my car driving down the street like I do now.

Five folks in Ellis Square who had nothing to do with that gunfight got shot, and the cameras weren’t working so we couldn’t get footage of what happened. There are so many errors that have happened along the way I just think it’s time for new leadership.

Crime is first and foremost. But there’s a lot of discussion that you can’t address crime without addressing poverty. This city hasn’t addressed poverty in two or three decades—nothing’s really changed. We continue to be a city of have and have nots, and it causes so much friction between the two communities. There needs to be a bridge.

How would you bridge the gaps?

Honestly, it has to come from multiple angles. The city needs to work better with neighborhood associations, because no one knows what they need in a neighborhood better than those groups.

We need to be focusing on better paying jobs. We have this big hospitality industry that doesn’t pay exceptionally well. It really bothers me that all of the folks who work downtown can’t afford to live downtown. So they’re coming from the 5th district, the 4th district, from outside of the downtown area, getting paid very minimally. The money that’s being made downtown is not being invested where they live; it’s being invested downtown or going in the pockets of the top 1 percent. It’s time we started investing in these impoverished neighborhoods.

I think we need to be better at attracting career jobs, such as manufacturing. The megasite has one tenant in it, and it’s sat like that for 20 years now.

What can we sell about Savannah to make more manufacturers want to come here?

We’ve lost several. The mayor says that Charleston got Daimler because they did all these long term tax breaks, which she said would make their bond rating go down. With all due respect, I think we could take a hit on our credit it meant providing jobs for our citizens. Where are our priorities? I’m pretty sure the function of our government is not to have a stellar credit rating but to take care of its citizens.

I know we have an issue with a skilled labor force as far as bringing some of these jobs in. We need to create community colleges that will train them. We need to go to JCB, Gulfstream and Mitsubishi and ask for a work exchange program where you bring in people from the community and train them for a period of a time and send them on with that skill set. Or if they’re good, retain them.

We don’t need to keep pulling people from Jacksonville or Charleston to work these jobs. We need to help the people who live here. Various folks have also said that there have been smaller companies who have looked at the megasite, but they passed them over because they wanted the big fish. That’s absurd. We’ve lost three big auto manufacturers. Why are we going after the big fish when we can fill it up with several smaller ones?

The idea was floated about diversifying, so when one major industry shuts down it doesn’t shut the whole city down. If Fort Stewart moves out of Hinesville, the city’s done. Here, if Gulfstream shut down, we’d be hurting a lot, or if something happened to the port. I think that we would be better served by having a variety of businesses out there instead of one giant car plant.

What is Savannah’s greatest strength?

The diversity of the people here. We need to do a better job of bridging the gaps. You will always have different levels of economic prosperity, but the disparity between them now is too great. We don’t have a middle, and that’s unsustainable. That’s how revolutions happen.

If Savannah had a revolution, what would it look like? Are we having it now?

Hopefully we are! I think a political revolution is a good thing. I’d hate to see it get to violence though.

We talked about the increased violence downtown. This is a pointed question, but do you think the answer is to buy your own gun?

I believe in the Second Amendment. But I’ve never felt that I needed to carry a gun. I’m not one to take someone else’s life. In self-defense I guess I would; luckily I haven’t been put in that position.

I think it is government’s job to keep the police department staffed. I don’t want what Ferguson did with bringing in the state guard. I do not want to become a militant society.

This didn’t happen overnight. I feel badly for the chief, because he’s having to bring in new people and train them as quickly as possible. From what I’ve heard, he’s basically 20 percent down and still needs to fire another 20 percent to because of corruption.

I agree with hiring more veterans, but we have to be careful because we don’t need a militant mentality when we’re trying to enforce community policing.

What’s the difference between militant and community policing?

Militant policing is subduing the population. Community policing is being part of the population. It’s about understanding the environment and the culture that you’re in.

When you’re fighting insurgents, you’re not trying to talk to them; you’re trying to eliminate them. In a community, you’re trying to get to know the people, understand their needs, their problems, their issues and work with them.

Personally, I don’t think anyone should be arrested for pot possession. I appreciate the states that have overturned that, because our jails are overflowing with people who shouldn’t even be there. It sets them up for failure. It’s such an absurd system, and it’s not sustainable to keep building more and more jails.

I had someone from the African American community, a very conservative gentleman, tell me that a new jail is going to have to be built, and he wants it built in the city so that it creates city jobs. He was talking about the recently purchased fairgrounds and said we should put the jail there.

I asked, “You don’t think that would be a complete flop for the city since they said they bought it to create affordable housing and then they put a jail there?” And he told me that a jail IS affordable housing. That blew my mind.

We’ve gotten to a point that that’s an acceptable idea. We’re heading in the direction where young men of color recognize it as a foregone conclusion that they are going to eventually be in jail at some point.

What do you think should be done with the $3 million fairgrounds?

I think it never should have been purchased by the city. The mayor said that the residents there wanted them to buy it so that it didn’t become a container yard or something.

The city needs to get out of the business of buying property—SCAD does a much better job. The city has a very bad track record in the last four to eight years of saying they’re going to do one thing with a property and doing another—or not doing anything at all.

The Cultural Arts Center is a good example. The initial design wasn’t great, but it was something. Then they altered it so it didn’t have a stage. How do you have a theater with no stage? That is not what we were sold.

If you’re going to dream big for Savannah, what’s the vision?

In terms of thinking big for Savannah, I think we need to look at Hutchison Island. A long term idea would be to continue the Truman Parkway over a bridge to Hutchison Island that would get rid of the container traffic off of Bay Street and out of downtown. They could circle around and complete the perimeter road around Savannah. It’s a lot of money, but it would do great things for downtown and even the ports.

Jacksonville, Atlanta, all these major cities have a ring road. We have a ring road, and it goes right through downtown. It doesn’t make sense.

There also needs to be a master plan for hotels so they don’t impact people who live downtown. And a plan for our historic district—it doesn’t need to be a museum but it doesn’t need to be Disneyland either.

And of course, a long term plan for economic growth—for everyone. I would like to see a Savannah where you can drive through any neighborhood and feel safe.

With six contenders in this race and no incumbent, why should people vote for you?

Because I’m new, I’m fresh, I’m not the establishment.

There’s one candidate who everyone is calling the establishment candidate, and there’s another one who has run for political office multiple times. My concern there is that he’s trying to build up his political chops by taking a lesser seat than what he previously tried for to use it as a stepping stone.

I’m different from these folks, I bring a different perspective. I work downtown and I live on the Eastside. I come from the service industry and I’ve worked my way up from the bottom to management. I’ve had to build consensus with people, difficult customers, different owners.

I have no hidden agenda other than trying to make Savannah better. What I say makes sense.

I’ve got the business chops. I know how to pull people together and get things done.