by Evan Lasseter, Savannah Morning News
In late February, David McDonald, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, finally had had enough of Savannah’s signature trolley tours.
He received a video from another downtown resident of a tour so loud it could be heard from two blocks away.
The reaction when the tour guide saw the resident filming? Mockery, McDonald said. “That was a tipping point that showed us the businesses don’t care.”
Tourism is Savannah’s “golden goose,” as one council candidate put it at a recent forum, bringing in an estimated $4.4 billion in visitor spending in 2022, according to data from Visit Savannah. That number has grown about $2 billion since 2012.
However, many residents in the city’s core note a quality-of-life decline associated with heavy noise and trolley traffic from downtown tours.
Tours across the Historic Landmark District often are out of code, they say, with noise projection from trolleys or walkers that can be so loud, it interrupts conversation inside homes. At times, the content from tour guides can be crude, some say.
Susan Prutzman, a resident on the perimeter of Warren Square, hears tour after tour make fun of her home, turning a comedy bit out of false references to “upside down windows” on her 1890s residence. Prutzman has signs she often sets in the windows, declaring that they are not upside down at all.
“Everytime I hear that I think they are missing the history, they are not talking about the history,” Prutzman said. “They just want some kind of entertainment.”
The quality of life concerns have become so salient that board members of the Downtown Neighborhood Association have proposed a set of new restrictions they hope to see Savannah City Council pass. At the top of the list are requests for mandated in-ear technology on tours to reduce voice amplification, as well as a cap on the number of trolley tours circling through downtown in a day and a reduction in the size of walking tours. They also want better enforcement of existing codes, something City Manager Jay Melder said he has made a priority.
DNA’s board members are set to meet with the city’s Tourism Advisory Committee on Oct. 24, which consists of residents and industry stakeholders, and makes recommendations to city council on tourism-related issues.
“We’re always going to come to the table where there are concerns,” said Michael Owens, president and CEO of the Tourism Leadership Council and a member of the advisory committee. “We are always going to do that and actions speak louder than words. We always have done that.”
It is Melder’s managing philosophy to bring these community stakeholders together, Owens said. And when it comes to tackling tourism and quality of life for downtown residents, the goal is to always find a balance.
Melder said the concerns of residents at this moment are clear: tour operations need more oversight. That will be the focus for finding the balance right now, which was shown by the DNA’s concerns being placed on the TAC agenda, Melder said.
“I have to believe my residents and take their concerns seriously,” Melder said, “and create a process where we can mete out those concerns and see if there is a policy solution to them.”
Neighborhood trolley study documents code violations
Nancy Radke lives at the corner East Bryan and Houston streets on Washington Square. It’s right across from Rainbow Row, so she has never been a stranger to trolley traffic by her house, she said. This year, however, it seemed there were more coming down the road than ever.
But Radke knew only her feelings about trolley traffic would not be enough to make a point. Radke wanted to see if Savannah was an outlier compared to other Southern cities with year-round tourism. Three others ― Charleston, South Carolina; St. Augustine, Florida; and Asheville, North Carolina ― fit the bill and shared trolley companies with Savannah.
Next, Radke took to the trolley company websites, mined their departure schedules for specialty tours and counted each tour scheduled for an entire year. Savannah made for more than half of the scheduled departures of all four cities.
To take it a step further, Radke and her neighbor partnered to use a motion-censor camera to pick up all the vehicles passing by. Then the neighbor watched the video, counting each trolley.
What their trolley study found was more trolley traffic than scheduled. But it also documented code violations of trolleys rolling through a block of Washington Square during hours city code restricts them from doing so. Anecdotally, other residents also tell stories of trolleys lined three or four in a row on a square, which is also a code violation.
“You can’t keep doing that in Savannah because the streets continue to fill, and fill, and fill,” Radke said.
While the DNA is lobbying for new restrictions, residents also see another need: enforcement of the regulations already in place.
Susan Broker, the city’s director of special events, film, and tourism, said Melder has given her a clear directive to find the balance between tourism and residential life in town.
The city currently has two tourism compliance officers for downtown, but it is in the process of hiring two more to focus on compliance during night hours. These are in addition to the general code compliance officers assigned to each neighborhood across the city.
That move addresses one of the challenges the tourism office has faced with enforcement, Broker said. The city also recently raised the fine for passenger vehicles parked too in long tour stands. The jump from $30 to $100 aims to reduce tourism congestion.
“There are always issues that need to be addressed,” Broker said. “We are committed to addressing those issues and working with the residents and the tourism industry to find the common ground.”
Tourism leaders don't want caps on tours
Visit Savannah’s yearly research shows three top reasons people visit the city: history, shopping and dining, said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah. The total number of visitors, including overnight stays and day visits, was about 17 million in 2022, according to Visit Savannah’s tourism snapshot.
Savannah also provides a unique blend of landmarks, architecture and renowned vistas on downtown streets overhung with trees and Spanish moss. That’s one benefit of tours, Marinelli said.
“That’s what they are showcasing,” Marinelli said. “They are showcasing how beautiful this city is, how interesting this city is, how architecturally unique this city is.”
There is also the advent of hop-on, hop-off tours, which Owens dubs as “tourism transit,” moving people around the city’s core. Some residents see them as a nuisance.
“While other people see tours and narration, I look at transit that doesn’t cost residents a dime,” Owens said.
It’s the transit element of tours that is key to how Owens sees potential restrictions to tours downtown, particularly those that would put a cap on the number allowed. Those could have "disastrous consequences," Owens said.
Owens said there are “healthy conversations” to be had about specific routes, quiet times, and amplification. The use of in-ear technology would be a recommendation worth researching, Owens said.
“But limiting something (trolleys) that reduces the amount of cars on the street would have an opposite effect on something I think most people in the community care more about, which is congestion and access to parking,” Owens said.
These issues will likely be front and center when the Tourism Advisory Committee and the DNA meet next week. The meeting is a step in the right direction, DNA President McDonald said. However, he also feels the city and industry have been slow to address their concerns. That’s one reason residents’ frustrations have boiled to this point.
“Hopefully we can get some movement on this,” McDonald said. “We’ve told the city we’re tired of meeting, we’re tired of this and not being listened to.”
Evan Lasseter is the city and county government reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at email@example.com.