By Nell Shellman
IF YOU had been at Jazz Fest in Forsyth at dusk, you may have seen a grinning man with a cart and blue collared shirt swiftly weaving his way from the stage to the far reaches, quickly inserting handshakes and koozies with water bottles into the hand of those he passed.
Pat Rossiter sauntered into Coffee Deli to meet me with that same political ease of someone who has had so many meetings in his life he doesn’t notice them any more. He shakes hands, he says hellos, he orders a coffee and a slice of pound cake, he eventually takes a seat.
The former SCCPSS principal is running for his first political office—alderman for At-Large District 2—but he clearly is already a political creature.
Rossiter’s father Frank is responsible for at least some of that. He held the seat his son is now running to grab from incumbent Alicia Miller Blakely for four terms. Frank Rossiter may have impacted Pat, but he says it’s a coincidence that he actually is running for the same seat.
“It was never a target to run for that particular seat,” he said. “The first seat opened up. I just knew that that was going to be filled by 30 people, and I just felt it too. So I wanted to go after this at-large position, and that was the seat my father held. It's crazy because as a 14-to-16 year old tagging along with him, I got to meet quite a lot of people.”
Rossiter clearly relishes stressing this procession of public icons whose hands he has shaken. Names like W.W. Law, Leo Center, and Woody Chambers dot his story. He says that his experience with such people has put him in a positive position to handle the business of Savannah.
“So the way that works is basically the mayor's normal function is as a board of directors for a major company. We're in charge of policy, and the CEO in our case will be the city manager. Underneath the CEO has all the day to day operations of the city,” Rossiter said while gingerly handling his coffee cup.
“And I think it would be refreshing to see how we get back to that. We need to get issues the public has to the city manager.”
Rossiter has made it clear that one of those issues is tourism. He talked about what he called a common-sense approach to the tourism industry as one such issue, and the importance of livable neighborhoods.
“All I'm saying is the City of Savannah needs to put on the books several regulations to have a happy medium,” he said. “We do what we have to do to meet the needs of the citizens. But we also won't go inside of the fact that tourism is a very big golden goose and prior to this Hyundai thing may have been the biggest goose.”
“I am pro-tourism, but not at the expense of the neighborhood. And I have first-hand knowledge. I grew up in Washington Square before it was cool. When I was little there was playground equipment,” he said, brushing off his childhood baseball bona fides.
“You know, merry-go-rounds and monkey bars and baseball games and all kinds of good stuff went on in that park. As a child of eight, nine, ten, you had a beautification of the square, and out went all the stuff.”
Rossiter stressed that he understands that people don’t feel comfortable with tourism because tours impede on the neighborhood, and that this can be mitigated.
“And I understand some of the concerns in the inner city. It's kind of frustrating to me to hear amplified tours. The irony is you have if you have amplified tours in a bus, and Historic Savannah requires single pane windows in a house. I mean something has to give," he says.
"Obviously the amplified tours can be turned down, and some of the walking tours. They get huge, which is great, and I'm not picking on the tour people, but I'm simply just saying that just use some common-sense knowledge.I don't want 50 people traipsing around my house at 10, 11 o'clock at night.”
He also said that this may include looking at how vacation rentals make up so much of downtown.
“I do respect the idea of people being able to do within the framework of zoning what they want to do with their property. But again, that's more common sense. I mean, we've got to make sure that we're not having a neighborhood that checks out on Sunday morning.”
That last point is a sticking one for Rossiter, who talked at length about revitalizing home ownership in the city while neatly squaring the edges of a slice of plastic-wrapped pound cake to the table on his left side. Rossiter stressed that solving the housing crisis will require a stark assessment of the property that exists and placing its ownership in the hands of people who need it.
“It's something that I think we're past—we’re past the idea of low-income or affordable housing in the form of apartments,” he said.
“I think that what we need is one way for people, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status. The best way to create wealth is to go through homeownership.” Rossiter said. “We have to make sure our citizens are aware of the vehicles that are in place they can use to get into the game, so to speak.”
“I think someone who works downtown should be able to get accommodations without having to go all the way to the outskirts or live in Richmond Hill or living so far away that they have a commute that contributes to other problems in the city. So I think we need to take a look at a lot of dilapidated houses and vacant lots we have in town. We need to take a good look and see if people are buying them and fixing them up.”
Rossiter stressed that the city and the federal government already have vehicles for helping in this process, and congratulated Martin Fretty on the work he has done with it locally.
Rossiter certainly scoffs at the idea that his ideas may be myopic, or that his political chops need to be grown out more. Despite criticism about his lack of relevant experience, he stresses that everything he has done has prepared him for city council.
“As principal you learn to clean up, you unload trucks. You counsel. You teach. I said I just had gotta be qualified for Homeland Security. I'd be qualified for the agriculture department, and the food sectors. I'd definitely be qualified for the education department. I probably could do the State Department with all the negotiations you have to do so.”
Rossiter served in the school district as a teacher, a coach, and an administrator for decades. He gave up coaching for a time while he attended night classes for graduate school at Georgia Southern, and subsequently worked at Jenkins, Meyers, Garden City Elementary and Richard Arnold, where he oversaw ESOL programs serving four counties.
He also worked in administration at Savannah Tech before ending his educational career as the inaugural principal at Tybee Island Maritime Academy, where he was tasked with getting the fledgling charter school off the ground.
As an administrator, he said he had total control of his schools from the moment the day started until after the last student went home, and as a team-builder he was used to making certain people could get jobs done during that time.
“My total educational experience coaching and teaching and being an administrator - especially because as the coach I have taken individuals and molded them into a functioning team, that had to be ready for production, a game on a particular day, and I think it's critical,” he said while centering his coffee cup neatly in front of him roughly three inches from the edge of the table.
“If I was elected, I can hopefully bring jobs together and get them going and working toward a common goal.”
And according to Rossiter, that management approach definitely has prepped him to talk about how to train the city to achieve its best result. In ten years time, he says sees a city that has the education to handle all the changes coming should he be elected. Rossiter says that people need to focus on the coming growth, and said that Savannah’s citizens need more training to take advantage of it.
“We're moving and would have moved then in the right direction to accommodate the growth. The citizenry of Savannah and the surrounding areas realize that just as you have to step up,” he said.
“I think we need to realize the jobs that aren’t coming to us if we don't possess the skill set necessary to take these jobs. And without it, then I'm not sure that 2030 is going to look the way I want it to. But if we do that, and are prepared to step into these jobs, I'm a firm believer—it is a cliche—but the rising tide takes all boats.”
Rossiter already has big name backers who are willing to vouch for this style of administration-as-coach. He’s netted endorsements from both Mayor Van Johnson and former Mayor Eddie DeLoach, crossing political lines.
This support yielded notable financial backers as well. Public totals for Rossiter’s campaign this year top over $170,000 with notable support from donors like former DA Meg Heap, developers North Point Real Estate, and Parker's CEO Greg Parker.
Rossiter is leveraging this cash to spread a message that he can bring back decorum to City Hall, and with a message that his leadership can prepare the city for the future. All of this adds up to Rossiter’s view that he calls the activist approach to sitting on city council is inadequate to getting work done that needs to happen before this growth hits.
“If you're an activist, then it's very difficult to represent the entire city with all the different people and attitudes in visions and direction the city's going to go in,” he said. Rossiter lists restoring civility as a major part of his platform.
“I think we need to bring back some good old fashioned statesmanship, some good old fashioned negotiation and some of the people skills that I think are strengths of mine. I don't believe in standing outside the sandbox and screaming and yelling about not being allowed to play in the sandbox.”
His opponent Alicia Miller Blakely has defended her position as an activist saying she has been barred from putting items on the council agenda, but Rossiter insists representatives bring something to the table other than criticism.
“The bottom line is I think it's up to an individual to make sure that they get engaged in the process for the betterment of the people they represent.”
This view ultimately dovetails with his idea that as an alderman, being a teacher would be his strength.
“I've always felt teaching as a teacher never was about being a dispenser of knowledge, but that I was a facilitator of process. I think Savannah was such a neat place. Back up and just take a look and identify those areas. I think I've done a good job on that platform by identifying those areas, and just using the wisdom that I've been able to acquire from being exposed to just some great people.”
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