Savannah: Powering Up

Savannah looks to the sea, local ingenuity and its own unique aesthetic for new sources of business

When Savannah aircraft maker Gulfstream announced a major expansion last March, it seemed to underscore the success of leaders in this oak-shaded coastal colonial city in widening an economic base that has long relied on the charm of its historic squares and the muscle of its shipping commerce.

“Diversity is our mantra,” says Rick Winger, executive director of the Savannah Economic Development Authority. In the voice of incantation, Winger describes the impact of Gulfstream’s renewed commitment in Savannah as “a $300 million investment, 1,100 new jobs, 1.1 million square feet of additional space.”

The numbers are impressive and bring into focus what Winger sees as an economy so overlapping and varied that it can withstand blows of hurricane proportions. “We have tourism, the port, we have military, we have manufacturing, a medical complex; and we will be focused on knowledge-based businesses,” he says.

The knowledge-based businesses, Winger says, often fly into town under the radar and can be so stealthy they are missed by most of the population, sort of like the little dramas taking place undersea off Savannah’s coast.

It is a fascinating story of birth, life, violence and death that appears on screens throughout the world every day, and it’s all true, occasionally live, and produced by a small group of scientists and technicians on Chatham County’s Skidaway Island.

The cast of characters includes mola, triggerfish, amberjacks, sharks, sea turtles and any other creature of the deep that might wander by the cameras sitting just above the ocean floor on the continental shelf about 40 miles from downtown Savannah. The daily show is a product of the University System of Georgia’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (SkIO) using SABSOON, the South Atlantic Bight Synoptic Offshore Observation Network, to broadcast via the Internet the triumphs and tragedies of the sea life off the Savannah coast.

These real time and video rebroadcasts are drawing the attention of scientists, meteorologists, environmental groups, fishermen and the rest of the world where there is an interest in what is going on undersea 24 hours a day. To the fishwatch faithful, the stories are far more interesting than any contrived reality show and can be seen at any time by visiting the Institute’s Web site at

The offshore cameras are part of a network of measuring and observation instruments attached to 8 radar platforms used by the Navy in aviation training exercises. The network covers more than 2,000 square miles of ocean and is seen by scientists as a valuable resource in watching nature in the raw.

“There are lots of oceanographic events that happen before we can get out there with a boat, or when it’s unsafe to be out there in a boat,” says Dr. Richard Jahnke, a SkIO scientist who functions as a sort of producer for this daily sea show. “The view of the ocean is very biased and distorted because we only see it when we’re out there in a boat. Lots of things happen when we’re not around and our goal was to have a bigger window into the ocean’s processes.”

Air Power

In addition to studying the migrating and spawning habits of fish, scientists also want to know what happens on the ocean floor when a hurricane is passing over. But it was lesser winds that caught the attention of the Southern Company.

“We had six years of data that showed the winds were much stronger than people thought,” Jahnke says. “That piqued the interest of the power companies and they came and collected the data.”

What the Southern Company wants to study is the feasibility of building huge offshore wind turbines to generate electricity. “We’re in the process of providing them with subsurface geology so they can look into what they need to do to build these towers out there. It’s in the early stages.”

Once considered a slim futuristic hope for producing energy, wind turbines are eliciting interest along the Georgia coast, an area that will need all the energy it can find if present development plans reach full bloom.

“We’re going to see more growth along the I-16 and I-95 corridors connecting in Savannah,” says Bill Lattimore, president of the Savannah-based Lattimore Company, a real estate services enterprise whose MarketGraphics division tracks residential growth along the coast for financial institutions, developers and retail site selectors. “Developers are coming in and building projects that have their own sense of community and can be only 30 to 45 minutes from Savannah. Areas that once seemed remote now don’t seem so remote because of the interstate connections.”

Lattimore told a February meeting of a business group that MarketGraphics had identified 995 new or planned subdivisions in an area stretching from Hilton Head, South Carolina to St. Marys, Georgia, with Savannah smack in the center. “The economic fallout from all this construction has had a huge positive impact on Savannah and Chatham County.” And this is only the first wave of what Lattimore sees as a continuing flow of new residents into and around Savannah.

“The oldest of the baby boomers are only 60 now and they are retiring and coming to Savannah for the warm climate,” Lattimore says. “That’s part of the boom of building around Savannah and all along coastal Georgia. We’re also seeing a continuing influx of working families.”

And those boomers and workers are buying homes. “We’ve been tracking the Department of Labor figures over the last five or six years and we’ve found 30,000 new jobs in the nine-county area around Savannah and along the Georgia coast,” he says. “And we’ve seen 30,000 building permits issued over the same period of time. In a real sense, we have new jobs fueling real estate growth and we have real estate growth fueling new jobs.”

All those new residents and workers will need somewhere to shop, and for Chatham County that kind of growth is going west. Port Wentworth in western Chatham had for years suffered from population decline, and until recently, the last subdivision there was one that was built in 1963. But that is changing with the arrival of huge new residential and retail developments. One, Savannah West Gateway, is a commercial complex calling for one million square feet of retail space.

“Things are booming here,” says Port Wentworth City Administrator Philip Claxton. “We figured [development] would come, we just didn’t figure it would come all at once.” So quickly did developers from the Atlanta area, the Carolinas and Florida descend on Port Wentworth that employees at city hall had to dig back through old files to find aging stock-card building permits. They soon ran out.

“We’re one of the last communities in Chatham County to have developable land,’ says Claxton. “We’ve had to make institutional changes to deal with development on this scale.” Now we’re fully electronic on our building permits.” There are rumors Port Wentworth will get its first bank in decades.

Brain Power

While western Chatham is kicking up dust with headline-making growth, new homegrown jobs are springing from the minds of high tech entrepreneurs who find the marriage of the ancient and the edgy in Savannah to be a perfect environment for their cerebral products.

“We found there were things people don’t talk about much in Savannah, things like the 44,000 students in the area and the 33,000 miles of fiber optic cable,” says Chris Miller, director of The Creative Coast Initiative (TCCI), an organization funded by the city and county governments and the Savannah Economic Development Authority. “People were not aware of the 400-plus knowledge-based businesses in town, and they didn’t seem to be aware that those businesses were generating more total wages than all the leisure and hotel and hospitality businesses combined. We’re talking about businesses that are run on brains.”

The idea for what Miller calls an innovation business “concierge service” came from informal talks with business, civic and government leaders that began shortly after the former MindSpring executive moved to Savannah three years ago. The Atlanta-based IT company’s 2000 merger with West Coast behemoth EarthLink, he says, afforded him the means to buy “a boat and a couple of houses” in Savannah.

“Savannah is a place that if you have a business based on brains, you can do really well. You can be in a place that has such reverence and respect for history, and at the same time it’s a place where people are doing ultramodern and cutting-edge design, software development and programming. You have people who are doing edgy 21st century work in a 1700s cotton warehouse. I mean, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin here and the first steamboat to cross the Atlantic was built and launched here in 1819 and it was named, Savannah.”

Miller says TCCI attracted 12 new companies last year by promoting the city’s natural charm and its technology assets.

“We connect people to the resources they need to be successful,” says Miller, who has become a high-energy booster fluent in techno-speak whose every rapid-fire utterance carries the urgency of a man fleeing a burning theater. “We’re talking about design companies, graphics companies, Web programming, software application, financial services. We’re talking about focusing just on those businesses that turn thoughts and ideas into products and services.”

Whether quiet growth or splashy expansion, Savannah is zooming toward a new period of prosperity, say city boosters.

The flood of 1,100 new jobs resulting from the Gulfstream expansion capped a five-month period of jobs growth in Savannah that began in late 2005 with the announcement of plans by Georgia-Pacific to invest $100 million in doubling the size of a gypsum plant. That move could eventually triple employment at the facility to almost 300. A month before, heavy equipment assembler JCB North America, Inc., announced 100 new jobs as the result of landing an Army contract to build high-speed backhoe-loaders.

“I think expansion is the highest compliment any business or industry can pay to a community,” says Rick Winger. “It says the workforce is in place and the general business climate is healthy for growth. And that is Savannah.”

Categories: Southeast