By Brian Myers

FOR THE past 50 years, the Savannah Civic Center has been the premier performing arts facility in the community. At their upcoming meeting on June 27, Savannah City Council members will meet to take the first steps in deciding the fate of this structure.

A recent City Council workshop gave three recommendations to Councilmembers with choices that will have members decide whether to renovate or demolish all or part of the structure.

The opening of the Enmarket Arena in early 2022 gave Savannah a modern facility to host a variety of special events, sports, conventions, and live music. This begged the question as to what the future is for the aging Savannah Civic Center, and prompted a Council work session in April where City Manager Jay Melder gave the elected leaders his recommendations for moving forward.

There are two major components of the Savannah Civic Center, the Johnny Mercer Theater and the Martin Luther King Arena. One of Melder’s propositions is to level the arena, but to preserve the theater, along with the ballroom and meeting rooms that sit above it on the top floors of the complex.

Additionally, Melder is calling for Council to build a new municipal office building to the north of the existing Civic Center.

Melder’s presentation in April outlined the City’s need for community owned office space, stating that 100,000 square feet are required. Building a new structure to house this need would mean quite an investment, but would pay itself back over time as it eliminates the need for costly commercial leasing agreements with the private sector.

Digging into the numbers on the Civic Center itself, it was acknowledged that there have been recommendations from others for its total demolition.

Melder pointed out that while the Martin Luther King Jr. Arena hits the taxpayers with the double-whammy of unprofitability and the need for costly repairs/restoration, the Johnny Mercer Theater gives Savannah a venue with a “unique function” that continues to be profitable.

City leaders have certainly given Savannahians the opportunity to voice their opinions on the fate of this iconic structure. A series of public engagement sessions were held, following a rigid series of stakeholder meetings in April.

The City hosted a community-wide open house on May 7 and May 18, a virtual community meeting on May 16, and an additional engagement session open to the public on May 20.

As revealed in the Council workshop, there were a handful of dominant themes across community members that weighed in during these public engagement sessions. The preservation of the Johnny Mercer Theater was at the top of the list, as was the desire to keep the ballroom.

As the demolition of the arena would erase an important structure that bears the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many at the engagement sessions were adamant that the civil rights leader’s legacy remain intact and used to perhaps rename the portion of the massive complex that would be saved and restored. 

The three options that Melder offered Council means that the elected leaders will be choosing between a total demolition, a total restoration, or a balanced approach that sees the leveling of the arena and the renovation of the theater, ballroom, and office/meeting spaces. Melder broke them down in this way:

Option 1: Keep what is there currently, at a cost of an estimated $170-$190 million. This is for an entire upgrade and renovation to the Savannah Civic Center. This would also include $25-$35 million in adjacent land sales, bringing down the cost as low as $135 million. The revenue projection is estimated to be negative for the arena and $2-$3 million for the theater.

Option 2:  Total demolition of the Savannah Civic Center and the construction of a new performing arts theater elsewhere. Cost of $210-$230 million. Land revenue sales an estimated $70-$80 million, net cost $130-$160 million. The revenue projections are estimated to be $2-$3 million each year.

Option 3: The balanced option, which renovates the Johnny Mercer Theater and demolishes the adjacent area. Costs are estimated to be $140-$160 million. After the $40-$50 million in revenue from land sales, the net cost is dropped to an estimated $90-$120 million. The theater renovation would cost an estimated $6 million, alone, but would recoup an estimated $2-$3 million a year in revenue.

The demolition of the existing arena also has other benefits, as presented in the workshop. Leveling it will open up opportunities to redevelop six city blocks and enable the restoration of a substantial part of the Oglethorpe Plan.

The restructuring that occurred in the 1960s that deviated from the plan could be reversed and open the doors for substantial improvements along this historic corridor.

Some Alderpersons were more vocal than others about the steps the Council should take. Alderman Detric Legget commented that the status quo is “demolition by neglect,” as the deferred maintenance issues with the arena have created much of the issues that the current Council is faced with.

Vice Chairman of Council and 4th District Alderman Nick Palumbo publicly reaffirmed a position that he’s been vocal about in the past.

“It’s incumbent on us to make the most practical decision out there,” he began. “I always want to make sure that no matter what happens, that we always have that continuous public space for our nonprofits, our performing arts organizations, for our music festival, that that venue, that identity, that piece of us in the heart and soul of this city, will always remain constant. That there is no lights-out action, that there is no interrupted performance. That they will always have a home with whatever option we choose to go with.” 

Earlier this week, Alderman Palumbo spoke to The Savannahian in great detail about the architectural attributes that exist within the Johnny Mercer Theater as he advocated for its restoration.

“The theater is an acoustical marvel of its time,” he said, citing the meticulous design work carried out by famed architectural-acoustic design master J. Christopher Jaffe brought to the theater five decades ago.

Jaffe, whose work is attributed to hundreds of performance halls, designed demountable acoustic shells that were able to elevate the transmission of sounds to new levels. These shells were the first ones to use selective transmission of energy to carry the vibrations to the stage-house coupling and the stage-house itself. These shells and their proper placement result in optimum acoustics for both the audience members and the performers on the stage.

Palumbo laments that at some point in the theater’s history, someone removed many of the shells and diminished the pristine acoustics that the performance venue used to boast. Obviously, replacing these shells will come at a price, as will other needed restorative work and necessary updates to the building.

From the Alderman’s standpoint, “the bones are all there and we have the ability to furnish the missing pieces to restore the theater to what it was built to be; a world class performing arts space in the heart of Savannah’s downtown.”

Palumbo was also quick to point out that while the newly constructed EnMarket Arena has its value, the space isn’t ideal for certain performing arts.

To his point, the design of the arena’s interior isn’t conducive to theatrical performances, symphonies, and other performances that are greatly enhanced by careful acoustic design. 

The Alderman also points out that though the costs for saving the theater will certainly come at a price, building a brand new one at the same scale of the existing space would be cost prohibitive at this juncture.

“Doing that could easily become the most expensive civic project the City has ever undertaken,” Palumbo said, doubling down on why it makes more sense to make restoration the Council’s priority.

Should Council adopt the resolution on the 27th, it will be the first step on a journey to completely revamp this section of Savannah’s downtown. All three options will be considered as resolutions.