By Nell Shellman | Illustration by Jenn Carroll
MARC Anthony Smith is one of seven candidates running for Savannah's City Council at-large post one. A former police officer, teacher, and congressional candidate, Smith has been involved in city politics and service for decades. He currently is the associate pastor at Faith Missionary Baptist Church and president of BRAVO Music Company, a local organization that focuses on youth music programming.
We sat down with Smith outside Waters Cafe in the tail end of the summer heat to talk about his experiences in Savannah and what he hopes to achieve in City Hall.
You have a lot of history in Savannah, correct? You've raised a family here?
Yes, a daughter.
Just out of curiosity, what do you feel like the city provided you with, and what could have been better provided in your experience of raising a family, and what was appealing about Savannah?
It was totally different when I grew up in the same neighborhood over 50 years ago. My parents moved here in 1973. It was very conducive for family life, especially when you got Daffin Park, right here on 36th Street, you had Winn Dixie, you got a grocery store, a pharmacy right there where the gym is on 41st, so you basically had all you needed right here in the community. You didn’t have to drive too far to get the basic needs of life. For raising a kid it was excellent.
So when you were growing up here, you were in this immediate area of Waters Avenue.
Yes, I was right down on 41st at Waters.
So now flash forward, and you’re here, in this same neighborhood. Why then this city-wide race? It seems like everybody's running for at-large post one.
First of all, I did not choose to run. I was asked to run by several people. I’d rather sit on the sideline and help people. In 1994 I ran for state senate as a write-in, in 2002 for Congress as a write-in in 2014. I ran for Congress and came in third in the primaries - a very close third, less than 200 votes. And then in 2020, I ran for house seat 163 and was unsuccessful in large part due to COVID. But now I'm running because I've been asked by several people because they have a distaste for what's going on in City Hall. They want to see some decorum brought back to city hall where people respect one another. They just take care of business in a professional way.
Can you build on that idea of decorum? What should City Hall be, and how would it run?
Well right now, City Hall has degraded into people calling each other names. Sessions last too long, and really nothing's getting accomplished. Both sides are right about what they're talking about. But somehow they have to compromise and come to some kind of consensus. But it's a sham because there's one upmanship going on at city hall that needs to end.
So you mentioned that you've run several times for several things. Since you're running again now, what did those campaigns teach you?
In 1994 when I ran as a write-in, there was more coverage. It was a different press and a different time. I sense the change, running in 2002 and in 2014, that the press had changed, like they care less about candidates. They already figured out who they wanted to win this race. It’s a little different since the shift in the press, but it's different than when it was 2014. For example, you're here interviewing me. This never happened in 2002 and 2014. Most of the people that interviewed me were on the phone from outlying districts because the first congressional district covers 17 counties, and if you look back at those statistics, had we taken Chatham County out of the picture I would have won the primary, so it’s different.
You've done a lot of community outreach. Could you tell me what sort of community work have you done outside of just political campaigns?
First as an educator, I taught at Riley Learning Center for about five years. It’s a school - alternative education kids that were designated felons. It gave me an insight into what's going on with families, especially our juveniles and the way that our system is tilted towards success when we couldn’t care less about the rest, and we've thrown away a lot of potentially good kids. I see them on the daily, and I am happy to have been in their lives to at least steer them towards living a better life.
And then I moved forward as a police officer. I was assigned to public housing enforcement, once again dealing with the same people I had dealt with about 10 years earlier in education - now they were living in public housing, and I had the ability to interact with people in public housing. It's not like they want to be there, but it was a necessity. Society tends to look unfavorably on public housing as a nuisance when it really isn’t a nuisance. It’s a necessity.
As a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Incorporated for a good 10 years I've worked with the Sigma Beta Club where we mentored young men from middle school or high school. Very proud of that accomplishment. Just recently, we had a young brother who graduated from law school at Southern University. And I remember when he became a Sigma Beta. Now he's graduated college, he’s in the fraternity and other organizations, but it's just thrilling to see these young men grow and become men.
Finally, two more things: I’m president of BRAVO Music Company Inc., an organization that provides music camp in the summers for minority kids that play orchestra, instruments, piano, vocal, dance, and then, as an associate minister at Faith Missionary Baptist Church and being able to counsel people during this time period gives me better insight on what's happening in our city.
You've mentioned education already, and I've noticed in your material, that you talk about education being a focus. What are your goals on this, and how would you partner with SCCPSS to meet them?
One of the big things that the public school has is that they have a lot of property, a lot of buildings that are vacant during certain times of the year, and to partner with them to make those those buildings accessible to organizations that are trying to mentor these young people, for example BRAVO Music Camp, trying to give them an opportunity to other organizations to mentor the kids and use these facilities, encouraging SCCPSS to create clubs that are going year round versus just during the school year, similar to what they do in Japan. You know, kids after school not necessarily engaged in sports join different clubs. And this is year round that you're involved with it. Here, we tend to, once the bell rings in May and schools out, that tends to be it for everything. But I think it could still go for things such as math camps, math clubs, reading clubs, quiz bowls - continuing to sharpen their skills in interaction with other people. I think we'll see not only test scores go up, but our graduation rates will go through the roof, but we have to keep the kids engaged 24/7.
Sports camps are good, but we have to keep our kids engaged in education in reading and still exposed to the library. That's one thing that with the advent of technology is sort of cut back on - kids really going and putting that book in their hands and getting, as my professor Dr. Kodali would say, getting butt time sitting there in a corner just reading a book. That's what improves your reading skills, improves test skills, improves your knowledge skills. It gets you into the vernacular language. But if you're not reading, you're stuck in a time warp.
One of the other things that you've mentioned in your material is veterans. The city already is prioritizing tiny homes for veterans. What more do you think the city should be doing?
We have facilities, but then the city continues to sell good property. For example, the old Candler Hospital was an excellent location for vets and other people that were on the margin of life, but then we sold it to SCAD, and where do these people go? Tiny homes are a good concept, but to me, it's a slap in the face. These guys, especially Vietnam vets, Desert Storm vets, guys have been in Afghanistan - all you want to give him as a tiny home. That's all you want to do. But yet and still, everybody else is living fabulously. I have a problem with that. I have a big problem with that. As the old saying goes, treat somebody as you want to be treated. I think we need to invest in something a little bit bigger than these little tiny homes. It’s a good idea, but Habitat for Humanity building those houses is probably the best way to go. You don’t have to build a large house, but be efficient. Once again, we have the facilities around Savannah, but we continue to give to the big elephants in the room that horde up all the space.
There’s not much space in Savannah.The idea of getting rid of public housing really chafes me because that housing was not just there because we had people on the margin. That housing, if you’ve noticed, along East Broad and West Broad were on the outskirts of Savannah. So those people living in Hitch village, living in Fred Wessels, living in Yamacraw, living in Frazier and Kayton Homes could walk to work because most of their employees were downtown. That's why public housing was created, to have a place for the workforce to be readily available. So you didn't have to wait and didn't have to worry about public transportation.
I think that concept should be used now more than dorm space for SCAD. Downtown business associations should acquire those properties and divvy those units up between them, so that their employees that can’t afford apartments themselves can rent from their employer, and don't have to struggle on an inadequate bus system trying to get in and out of downtown Savannah. And then when you have holidays, and you have festivals, your workforce is already in place. They can just walk there. It makes a whole lot of sense. But we want to kick out the poor, but they’re our workforce, so it becomes very problematic.
One more policy question. You endorse the idea of a neighborhood Bill of Rights. What is that, and how does it work?
As I walk around, especially downtown Savannah, people buy homes with certain expectations that one, I have parking, two I can have access to some place to buy food, medicine. And I think if we went along with that concept, all these neighborhoods would be a whole lot better. Because we tend to favor certain communities over other communities. For example, you have Baldwin Park, and you go south, you have Ardsley Park. When Ardsley Park sneezes, the city is right down there trying to fix the problems in Ardsley Park. But then you come up to Baldwin it takes a minute for the city to respond. Even further, If you go to Carver Village, go to Hudson Hill, Cloverdale, literally no response.
So with a Bill of Rights, these neighborhoods have the expectation that the city is going to try to make sure that there is adequate banking in the area. You got a lot of senior citizens right here.
The that they're going to have medical services, not hospitals but at least pharmacies that are in these areas that they can go to. We need to have a better roads.
The Bill of Rights protects the neighborhoods from businesses. For example the gym down [Waters Ave.]. It's all well and good to have a gym, but then guess what? They're parking all over the neighborhood. They went into the MPC and said we have adequate parking around our building. They don't. And then they block up the street for the neighborhood. I'm watching kids come in in the afternoon trying to get off the school bus. The whole street is blocked up with people going to the gym. Now had these neighborhoods been treated like gated communities, you wouldn't see just random Joe parking. I think that would help people downtown Savannah. I mean, people shouldn’t just be able to park anywhere in neighborhoods because it's the public street. We got to get off that concept. We have to get adequate parking, and if we got tours and people coming to visit, they should be bused or railed in, and it’ll eliminate a lot of cars coming into the downtown community.
So it’s about transportation, too?
It makes a whole lot of sense because everybody can't bring the pickup truck to downtown Savannah and expect to get to the restaurant or get to the event at the same time. I think one of the biggest problems here in Savannah Chatham is the pushback on public transportation. You had a director of Chatham Area Transit a few years ago come up with a great concept of having a rail between Savannah and Hilton Head, which would have been excellent. It's just a death road just trying to get into South Carolina. Now they're finally expanding their highways. Now they are finally improving them, but under Nikki Haley, they sent back millions, hundreds of millions, of dollars to the federal government because she was opposed to Obama.
If you notice, Georgia, Florida, then skip South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia all have three lanes on I-95. You go into South Carolina, it's still two lanes, and it's getting rough. And the same notion is happening here in Savannah. We've got the Hyundai plant coming here, but we still have got the same old rickety bus system in place. They’re not doing anything because they don't want to think outside the box. We've got to get out of this ‘50s mentality when GM and a lot of these car companies bought up these public transportation systems and ran them into the ground, especially the rail system that we had here. Before we took up all the tracks and all that you can jump on the streetcar and go anywhere. And we got rid of it for what? That's what we need right now. But we allow certain folks to control the narrative and then the rest of us pay for it.
I noticed that then a lot of what you've been talking about, such as access to resources, neighborhoods, transportation, and reading reflect the positives of your own experience. Projecting those ideas forward, what do you think an ideal Savannah would look like?
An ideal Savannah would look like when we were trying to get them to run a rail along the Truman Parkway to eliminate a lot of people driving from Southside downtown. Just come in on the rail and go to work. Easier access. But moving forward you have now electric buses. We’ve got to go green big time. It's time to take advantage of this. We still want to use the cars, but I'm saying not it's not gonna help. I told the owner of this establishment [Waters Cafe]. “This is the kind of establishment we need.” People walk in and walk out. You rarely see parking, but I see a lot of people walking here, and that's what we need in Savannah.
But as I go out into the county, I see these gated communities and I say, “You want to live there, but then you want to come to Savannah and just park anywhere when you don't want nobody to park in front of your house.” Let's be the same everywhere.
Moving forward. I see a Savannah that's linked to Atlanta via Amtrak. I see a Savannah that’s linked with a light rail over to Hilton Head. I see a Savannah with adequate public housing. But one of the most important things in the future is bringing down the cost of rent. Somehow we've got certain elephants in the room that we're gonna have to go after. And once we do that, we can see costs coming into perspective with what’s on people's paychecks.
And to be clear, when we're talking about elephants in the room, we are talking about SCAD.
I’m just making sure.
SCAD, Gulfstream, and a few other entities. They've set up camp and divided the city up.
I'm not new to this game because my father’s cleaning service was around the Rousakis machine that came about in the late early ‘70s. And I knew the players. I didn't quite understand what was going on. But a lot of my dad's clients came because of that machine. Then things changed in the early ‘80s. There was a very positive effect. Then their kids came back from these schools with a different philosophy of business. Savannah was coming together and then all of a sudden in the ‘80s, it divided. On this street back in the ‘80s, we couldn't even sit outside, with crack, drugs, and then Ricky Jivens Gang shooting up people. It was a trip, but then things changed here. You see it changed.
Today a lot of my friends don't like coming to Savannah because they consider it a tourist trap. Prices are through the roof. The city is losing its look. The elephant in the room is responsible for a lot of it, and I can't understand for the life of me. You’re an art school, and you're supposed to be about preservation, but all you are worrying about is the bottom line, growing an institution, and destroying a city.
But in the future, I would like to see Savannah and all the municipalities merge into one unit and so it'd be Savannah-Chatham, such as Macon-Bibb, such as Athens-Clarke, such as Augusta-Richmond. That's what we need here. And we need to do it yesterday to get on top of the growth. There's going to be over a million people in here by 2030 in the county.
I was little disappointed in the arena that was built that was touted. It disappointed me because you got a civic center that you can put what eight to 10,000 people in. You build something for almost $200 million to hold the same amount of people. Come on, man. Y’all’re wasting money. You have just wasted money. The best thing they could have done was closed the Savannah Mall, imploded it, and built a nice 30,000 seat arena out there. You had adequate parking, access to people coming off I-95.
I don't remember anybody moving on that.
They didn’t want it. That mall should have never been built. But now that you got it, you had a chance to correct it. You saw it going in the hole. But they're trying to do too much downtown. And as for the tourists, you want things for the tourists? That eastern walk is a waste of money. They should have put a new baseball stadium over there. That would have attracted your tourists, and couple the Savannah Bananas and their phenomenal success with modern facilities. Whoa, whoa, whoa, you could be making money. But now you're trying to keep this park that was updated in 1942 in the Works Progress Administration Act. The park is too small for all that.
You asked me earlier why it was appealing. Kids could go to Daffin Park after school. You had the band from Savannah High practicing. Man, it was phenomenal for the African American community, but then all those folks that have property around there complain and complain and complain. And now the park is dead. You got a dog park where people used to go and eat and I'm like, they killed that. Where do y'all come up with these crazy ideas?
So an ideal is to merge and become one city-county. You can do like New York City. You're going to have different boroughs, but you still have one government, and that would cut taxes tremendously. That would identify where all these resources have been going for years. Because Garden City lives large off the docks. Port Wentworth lives large off the docks, but they're all in Chatham County, so let’s all become one. Chatham County merged with the Savannah Police Department, then de-merged. They merged because they said they didn't have the money to continue, then it de-merged, and all of a sudden they had all this money. Now they've finally gotten rid of Southside Fire Department, then Chatham emergency, and now they're getting ready to end their contract with them for fire, and they're going to start their own fire department. That makes no sense. You can't with Savannah Fire, which is the top fire department in this region. Merge. People in the county in all these municipalities need to speak up and say, “Hey, it's time to merge,” so we can get on top of this growth, because they're bringing a lot of businesses and because no one is in charge.
And finally, the greatest resource that we have is water. It's water. Unfortunately, in the ‘50s, they put that nuclear plant up there in Aiken, South Carolina. You know, a lot of people don't know that it was tied to Savannah. Mary Telfair was a big benefactor for women for many years, and in fact her hospital. But she owned a plantation there in Aiken, South Carolina. That was sold to the government to put that plant there.
But now we're bringing Hyundai into the area. Building cars I have no problems with it. But what comes with it? And as Professor Dr. Dre said, it's that latent effect that you got to be concerned about. And we're building electric cars. They're gonna need what? Batteries. Battery plants need what? Water. And instead of Georgia creating desalination plants and supplying that water to these businesses, we’re going to allow them to dip into the aquifer that’s already at risk. Who wants to drink water out of the Savannah River knowing you got the nuclear plant upstream? Back in the mid ‘70s, my parents took us off the tap water and put us on the spring water coming out of the bottles.
When did Union Camp start?
Union Camp started back in the ‘30s, but they are another offender when it comes to using that water.
I know that they've been blamed for damage to the Florida aquifer.
And one of the biggest offenses when I was a kid coming up was the smell that came from the plant. Oh, oh, early in the morning, man, please.
But you got a lot of businesses set up because of fresh water. We have got to get like California to preserve what little fresh water we have and supply these businesses with this water but that water more importantly does not go into the system. You just don't dump it back. You have to treat it yourself and reuse it.
Well, just one last thing. What is one thing we haven't touched on that voters should know about you?
This has been in my blood since I was two years old. I’ll never forget the Tet Offensive of 1968. That's what turned me on to the news - the Robert F. Kennedy announcement of Mark 17, ‘68, President Johnson stepping down saying he would not run again, and Dr. King's assassination next month, watching Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, watching the convention blow up in smoke in Chicago, and then to watch the Republican convention with Nixon, remembering Governor Wallace and his running mate, General LeMay talking about wanting to blow up Vietnam, take them back to the Stone Age, and then boom. All of that to just watch us finally go to the moon, and circle the moon. What a crazy year, and then all of a sudden it's peaceful. But we can get to that peace.
Like I said, I've been, I've been watching politics. And one of the things that was funny is that when “60 Minutes” first came out, I was like, “Oh, my God, my parents are gonna want to watch this.” And then pretty soon, I got hooked. But the reason why I know so much about business, is not because of my dad, but because I had opportunity to spend time with my maternal grandfather, who was a poster in Philadelphia, and I taught him politics, and he taught me business, and the two mixed together are extraordinary.
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