Well, I’m back from my latest trip, which was to the stately and historic Southern city of Savannah, Ga. Founded by a man named Oglethorpe in 1733, Savannah today is a fetching, eminently walkable (good thing, considering all the shrimp and grits and biscuits and gravy I ate) and exquisitely preserved mix of buildings from a few different historical eras, interspersed with a lovely, live oak-festooned public square every couple of blocks or so. I spent two or three afternoons sitting in the square behind our hotel reading a book, with the house that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman stayed in during the Union occupation standing stately on one side of the square, next door to one of the city’s oldest Episcopal churches.
On another side of the square sat the building pictured here. It began life as the headquarters for local militia unit the Savannah Volunteer Guards, which explains the large cannons at either side of the front door. It is now, like many other buildings across the city, part of the Savannah College of Art and Design. SCAD, as it’s generally known, started in 1978 with a $200,000 loan to buy the old armory and since then has worked with the city to repurpose over 67 old civic and commercial buildings into classroom, gallery and dormitory space. According to an independent study released last year, the college in the year 2012 alone made a total economic impact on Savannah of $386 million; has generated 4,413 jobs; accounted for $179 million in wages; drove $88 million in student spending; attracted more than 126,000 visitors.
The report, by the New York City-based consulting company Appleseed, highlighted its finding that an overwhelming percentage of the money SCAD generates comes from outside the Savannah area.
“SCAD’s impact on the local economy is particularly noteworthy in that, like Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. and Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., SCAD draws the great majority of its students, and a very high percentage of its revenues, from outside the Savannah area,” said Hugh O’Neill, president of Appleseed, in a release announcing the study’s results. “At the same time, most of the money SCAD derives from these external sources is spent in the Savannah area, generating jobs and income both at SCAD itself and throughout the local economy — jobs and income that in SCAD’s absence, would probably not have come to Savannah.”
Now that, dear readers, is economic development. Hey, what other city has an abundance of empty civic and commercial space and a burgeoning art scene? Could it be … Kingston?
Yes, duh. Something like this, if it succeeds like it did in Savannah, could transform our city and bring true, sustainable and perennial growth, and shift K-town’s paradigm for good. An art school would draw an ever-changing tide of young, energetic people to town, with pockets full of their families’ money. All the buildings people currently fret about being or about to be vacant — the Cioni Building, Woolworth’s, any number of Midtown industrial spaces and shuttered schools — would be fixed up and filled up with useful (and ecologically friendly) things going on. Natives could get decent work for this institution; landlords could make good money renting places to students.
Ambitious? Sure. But Kingston has to really start both thinking, and punching, above its weight if it’s going to make any real progress. The same old ideas are clearly not changing a damn thing on the ground and as someone who grew up in Hyde Park, I can tell you that heritage tourism just isn’t enough to save one’s community from economic torpor.
So let’s get this done, artists, officials and citizens of K-town. Maybe 30 some-odd years from now, other in-a-rut/down on their luck cities will look to us as an example of a community that got it right, and didn’t have to sell its soul — or its water — to do it.