Hutchinson Island de-annexation proposal a deepening problem for Savannah officials

February 14, 2014 14:09 pm

by Bill Dawers · 4 comments

The air might have been pretty smoky in Savannah last weekend because of the rubber fire at the Georgia ports, but there’s an even fouler smell in the air this weekend.

At the end of January, the general public and city officials learned more or less simultaneously that Chatham County had convinced state legislators to put forward a bill that would allow de-annexation of Hutchinson Island — the low-lying land in the middle of the Savannah River across from River Street that is home to the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center. From a 1/27 Savannah Morning News article:

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, said Monday he plans to submit legislation to de-annex Hutchinson Island property from the city of Savannah, at the request of Chatham County Chairman Al Scott.

Scott did not return calls for comment.

A developer — whom Stephens refused to name — plans to develop a mixed-use development on property east of the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort and Spa, Stephens said. The developer believes he would have an easier time getting the required permitting from the county, Stephens said.

News of the plan came as a surprise to Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson and at least two other City Council members Monday.

Once all parties realized that city officials had not been consulted on the plan, and as multiple agendas began to reveal themselves, Stephens and other lawmakers backed off the proposal.

Today, Savannah Morning News reporter Eric Curl has two pieces that further explore possible conflicts of interest and detail various tactics to leverage public backing of a private convention center hotel, which has been a contentious proposal around these parts for many months now. From Convention center hotel behind Hutchinson Island push:

Documents obtained later through an open-records request indicate Scott believed de-annexation would help spur development on the island, including the construction of a tax-supported convention center hotel.

From Savannah developer’s role questioned following de-annexation push:

Developer Steve Green, who served as Scott’s 2012 campaign manager, was the only non-county official or non-state lawmaker who was at the Olde Pink House on Jan. 25 when the chairman presented his request to local Georgia legislators.

Two people who attended the meeting, Commissioner Helen Stone and State Rep. Ron Stephens, said about two weeks ago they thought Green was working as a lobbyist for the county.

On Thursday, Stephens said he misspoke and he believed that Green was at the lunch as Scott’s consultant.

Green is not a registered lobbyist, according to state records. He is the immediate-past chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, as well as a board member of the Georgia Ports Authority, Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce and Georgia Power.

You’ll have to click on through to the rest of the article that tries to detail the confusing interpretations of Green’s role here — and why he had such access to elected officials. Perhaps most notably: “[Lee] Hughes, who has served as Chatham’s lobbyist for nine years, said on Tuesday that he has had an agreement with Green since before this year’s legislative session to provide lobbying services for the county.”

The possible conflicts of interest seem dizzying, frankly, and here’s hoping that the Savannah Morning News (I’ve been a freelance columnist for the paper since 2000) continues to sort through the confusing details.

And then there’s just the simple question about the wisdom of pursuing de-annexation without city support in place. How did those pushing the measure think this would end once Savannah’s leadership learned of the proposal?

In the background, of course, is the larger question of continued public investment on Hutchinson Island, which has very poor access to the rest of the city and is at a very low elevation. If the private sector isn’t willing to back another hotel on the island, why should public money be used? There are obviously ways to answer that question, but the Savannah public at large seems unconvinced.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

barstool69 February 14, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Bill – Hutchinson has just as good or better access than the new proposed Arena site. I don’t recall you labeling that site’s access as “poor”. If you’re a tourist staying north of Broughton, which is easier/safer to get to at night?

Bill Dawers February 14, 2014 at 6:01 pm

I’ve written a lot about the new arena site — I think it’s an excellent site, with excellent possibilities for vehicular, pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access. It’s a short walk from the new hotels west of MLK, even an easy walk from the core of downtown. The site has less crime than the area of the current arena (in part because the site is basically a no man’s land with no real neighbors). As the city continues to expand west of MLK (SCAD Museum of Art, expansions and upgrades of the Ga. State Railroad Museum, Frogtown, Savannah Station, SCAD’s presence on Boundary Street, new hotel on Oglethorpe next to the Thunderbird, etc.), the new arena site seems like a really good location for the coming decades.

The access to Hutchinson is terrible. The ferry capacity is completely inadequate for large-scale events, and the vehicular access is marred by the congestion of Oglethorpe Avenue west of MLK. If we did have a convention hotel with 400 rooms, any conventions using it would have little choice but to hire motor coaches to get large groups into the Historic District.

Ellynn February 15, 2014 at 12:29 pm

The Island has only one access point by car. All you need see to prove Hutchinson has poor access is to witness the back ups when there is an event at the center. Last Saturday morning the right hand lane was backed up to the new bus tranfer station (and this was before the fire) for Springtime in the South. The Friday before the Rock n Roll marithon, the Women’s Show, The craft Beer festival all cause back ups getting on and off of the island. So did the morning rush for the Ledgends when it was still there.

The arena site has mutiple points of access. Currently you could agrue that the arena location has some security issues. But so did the areas around the access to Hutchinson before the on ramp was built in 1989, including the murder of a police officer and a few gang shotouts. Now look at the level of activity.

Bill Dawers February 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

Additional details from Saturday’s Savannah Morning News only muddy the water further: http://savannahnow.com/news/2014-02-14/chairman-al-scott-defends-hutchinson-island-de-annexation#.Uv8BekJdXw4