Have you been hoping for some good news here at the holidays?
The past year has brought a lot of good news for Savannah, even if negative stories have frequently obscured the positive developments.
I could pepper this column with asterisks to note various downsides, limitations and caveats, but I’d rather focus on the positive today. Next Sunday, I’ll discuss a few trends to watch for 2018 and include more cautionary comments.
So what has gone right in 2017?
Crime is down
We don’t have all the numbers for 2017 yet, but crime rates have been trending lower.
As of Dec. 9, there were 33 homicides in the total jurisdiction of the soon-to-splinter Savannah-Chatham police department. At the same time in 2016, there had been 47 homicides. In 2015, there had been 51.
The number of street robberies also fell markedly — from 227 in 2017 to 362 in 2016.
We have also had fewer burglaries in 2017 than in 2016 or 2015.
A few key categories of crime have increased in 2017 — including aggravated assault without a gun and shoplifting — but it’s possible that those increases are actually due to more aggressive policing.
Local economy, labor market still expanding
According to the latest estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor, the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties) had 181,200 nonfarm payroll jobs in November, an increase of 2,600 jobs from a year earlier.
That 1.5 percent rate of increase in payrolls is almost certainly faster than the rate of population growth.
Interestingly, the public sector actually lost jobs, while the private sector added payroll positions at a healthy 2.1 percent rate.
The private sector gains were broad-based. I’ll have more details about the local employment situation in an upcoming column.
Substantive limits on new hotels, STVRs
With angst growing about the impacts of booming tourism in Savannah, local officials took steps to limit the number of new short-term vacation rentals in the downtown area and to restrict the size of some new hotels.
The new policies might not entirely please anyone, but it looks like we’re capable of hashing out important compromises that can allow tourism to flourish while at the same time trying to protect residential quality of life.
At the same time, officials have been moving ahead with policies that should encourage greater residential investment and density in the greater downtown area.
City budget under control
Nobody likes the new fire fee, but the city of Savannah budget seems under control for the first time in several years.
City officials have invested significantly in public safety, made some cuts elsewhere and continued support for a number of well-respected arts and social service organizations.
We won’t be dipping into reserve funds over the next year, and it’s likely that revenues will be higher than estimated.
Some representatives of local nonprofit groups made compelling arguments against the new budget at the most recent Savannah City Council meeting. If surpluses materialize, the city manager, mayor and aldermen should revisit a few specific funding decisions.
Savannah River Landing
Savannah River Landing Land JV LLC, a joint venture of Regent Partners and Mariner Group, has big plans for the massive Savannah River Landing site at the east end of River Street.
It was inevitable that the site would attract major investment, but we had been waiting a long time. The construction of the various commercial and residential components will boost the local economy, and the added value to the property will pay dividends for the foreseeable future.
The reactivation of Savannah River Landing suggests that some other delayed developments might be jump-started soon.
Investment in long-neglected neighborhoods
The surge of new investment in neighborhoods like Thomas Square is adding jobs and bringing new vitality to neighborhoods that had often felt economically stagnant.
The rapid demographic changes and increases in property values raise difficult questions about affordable housing and other matters, but the investments are generally welcome after literally decades of blight and population loss in some neighborhoods.
I could go on and on about other positive developments.
Yes, we have a lot of challenges ahead of us, and I’m as frustrated as anyone by some current trends. For now, though, I hope everyone enjoys the rest of the holiday season.
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.