Photo by Amanda Mack

MIKE MCCANN jokes “don’t hold it against me” when he says he’s originally from California. Though to old-timers his scant four and a half years in Savannah would barely qualify him to vote here, much less run for office, the truth is he’s a good example of exactly the kind of person who is now moving to Savannah in droves – upwardly mobile young families – and who probably expect more from their local government than is now the case.

Mike worked for auto dealerships for over 20 years before embarking on a career change. His main gig right now – pending next month’s election, that is – is as Youth Pastor for White Bluff Methodist Church. He coaches youth baseball, basketball and football, and also serves on the boards of the Frank Callen Boys and Girls Club, the Habersham YMCA, Chatham/Savannah Authority for the Homeless, and the Savannah Sports and Recreation Board.

He says his constant level of face-to-face activity out in the community gives him unique insight and ability to address an increasingly diverse Sixth District – the forgotten Southside of Savannah far from the tourists.

“Everything I do is across lines, whether those lines are political, race, or religion,” he says.

We spoke to Mike last week.

How long have you lived in the Sixth District?

I’ve been in Savannah four and a half years, and I moved to the Sixth District last year. Now my mother and father in law have also moved out here, and bought a house.

Even though you haven't been here long, you probably know that the Sixth has changed quite a bit from its roots as sort of a white-flight suburb. Is that the sense you have?

Everyone I talk to out here says how much more diversified the district has become over the last 10-15 years. People who live here are devoted to the area and decided to stay and deal with whatever changes have come. You can tell there’s a lot of pride here.

It’s always interesting how so many people in Savannah actually live south of DeRenne, but there’s still this prejudice that the Southside is only for big chain stores and strip malls.

It’s amazing how little focus on small business there is here. I want to help bring back reasons for small business to come back to the Southside. Not everything has to be Applebee’s or Outback. There’s room for unique places to grow here. I can easily imagine southside locations of places like Treylor Park or Hitch being really successful, if they’d come here.

We’re real creative as a city in support of developers getting special permissions for hotels and tourism. Let’s get creative in giving tax breaks for businesses going to the Southside. We’ve got these blighted strip malls here. Let’s give tax breaks based on the amount of money that’s been put into the buildings.

What would you say to those who might contend you just don’t have enough experience in the area to run for City Council? Why should someone who voted for Kurtis Purtee four years ago switch horses now?

If I was involved in one place for 20-plus years, as he has been, I’d hope that the things I was involved in would see the needle move. As someone with many years in the car business, if I was brought in to turn a dealership around, I guarantee you’d begin to see improvements immediately.

Kurtis talks about 22 years in law enforcement and his masters degree in criminal justice. OK, when are you going to put all that to work? He says he works 50 hours a week, and pulls all these extra shifts. Frankly I don’t know how he finds time to be an alderman.

Being an alderman may come with a part time pay, but you need a full-time mindset. The way my life is organized right now, that’s a lot easier for me to accomplish.

You find yourself on the side of the Council minority on the issue of the Council agenda. You essentially have the same position as Kesha Gibson-Carter, Alicia Miller Blakely, and Bernetta Lanier that it shouldn’t take a majority vote to get something even put on the agenda.

Only about 10 percent of what comes in front of City Council is specifically about the Southside. That’s why the ability to get something on the Council agenda is so important. You have to create space for people to be able to do that.

The way it is now, unless you’re on the so-called majority you’re not getting those voices heard. Why would you need a majority vote on council for your voice to be heard at all?  That’s just a way to silence those voices.

This isn’t necessarily to slam Van Johnson. Overall I think he’s been a pretty good mayor. He did a fairly good job during COVID. He did a good job during all the protests. To me the problem is the everyday stuff.

Everywhere I go, with everyone I talk to, the big word on everyone’s lips is “quality of life.” But quality of life doesn’t seem to be as important to district representatives as development and tourism and growth. When 70 percent of the last two SPLOSTS have gone to some kind of tourism funding, you’ve got your priorities wrong.

One of the big issues is at the MPC. They’ll tell a developer, make sure you have two meetings with the community. But they don’t give them any direction as to what needs to be discussed and agreed upon. They’re just checking the box, so they can say they did their due diligence. “Did you have those two meetings? OK then you can go ahead.”

Another issue with local politics is how often do you see a vote on an amended motion? That way you could have all sorts of compromise solutions being brought forth. But instead, it’s always phrased as it’s our way or no way.

Out here you saw that with the concern about the new Wild Heron development near Georgetown. All people were really asking for was two things: 1) Do the road improvements first, before the development, to make sure those road improvements actually get done. And 2) lower the number of units just a little bit. Not a huge number, just cut down the size a little.

Kurtis told everyone there how glad he was to see so many people getting involved, and then said, “Sorry, I have to leave, I have another meeting to go to.” If he had stepped up and stood up for these residents, I’d have said, yeah he’s probably unbeatable this year. He would have earned a lot more respect.

He not only supported the development, he tried to get it passed on only one reading. At the very end of a long debate about the millage rate, in a meeting that lasted until 11:30 at night.

You’ve said you would have rolled back the property tax millage instead of keeping it the same, as this Mayor and Council voted to do. Why is that?

That’s the other issue with this Council: They have a track record of raising taxes. For three years they have raised taxes. Now, they’ll try to tell you it’s really not a tax increase, that they’ve retained the lowest millage rate in 25 years or whatever. But they’re fully aware of the fact that doesn’t lower the amount of money that people are paying in taxes, people’s payments have only gone up.

When they hold on to tax revenue like they’re doing, instead of giving the citizens a break, you’re more likely to get something like another Broughton Street project— another $17 million spent on a project that takes forever to finish. The people just need a break.

SCAD is in serious expansion mode, overflowing from downtown well into the mid-city area. Do you see them expanding into the Sixth District in a big way?

Yes, that’s going to change. That will change when they start looking at the Southside as a sort of landlocked downtown. They’ll eventually push out of the downtown/midtown area. They’ll see these buildings that Georgia Southern hasn’t used or bought yet, and they’ll buy them up.

City Council always says they have no power over SCAD, that state law keeps them from limiting development. But something City Council could do is at the level of individual applications. I’d push for us to say no more applications from SCAD will be considered until they come to the table.

In general, we have to stop approving every application that requires a special ask, like zoning or height or proximity to the road, things of that nature.

I understand SCAD has done a lot for this city and community. In the old days, maybe they needed all those tax breaks and incentives. But we’re way past those conversations now. SCAD can’t just continue to produce a burden that falls so heavily on the shoulders of residents.

How many calls are they running into the local police department, but the number of SCAD students isn’t even in the city census count? That’s true of tourists as well. They say we’re short 100 police officers – it’s probably closer to 200 officers short, if you count all the SCAD students and tourists who aren’t counted now.

All of this also brings up the issue of affordable housing. First of all, we have to decide what affordable really means. If you accept the definition that it’s paying 30 percent or less of your income a month, and the median household income in Savannah is well under $50,000 a year, that means an “affordable” place is one that’s no more than $1225 a month to rent, or a house that costs under $200,000.

You can go on Zillow right now and there are only about 12 apartments or homes in Savannah that meet those qualifications. When we need at least 10,000 more housing units! I realize not everything is listed on Zillow, but that’s the single best barometer of what’s available.

I would insist that at least 25 percent of the next SPLOST go directly toward affordable housing, with just a minimal amount, if any, going to tourism. They already got an increase on the hotel/motel tax, and that goes toward tourism too.

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