Notes From the Road: Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail:
STFU and Go Away!
I ran into an old friend on Broughton Street yesterday while I was zooming new suits at J.Parker. (A candidate for Mayor of Savannah is expected to look like somebody-- as my father used to say-- and I trust Jimmy and Kieffer and Greg to dress me during my wife's absence because, let's face it, I have zero fashion sense and if left up to me I'd be running around town in a Hawaiian shirt and stained khaki pants and sneakers.) This old friend broke off mid-conversation with an important personage, made a bee line toward me, blocked my path, and leaned in close enough to whisper in my ear: "Would you please shut the F#@& up and go away? Would you, please, let these fools downtown finish the job of running the city into the ground so that we can buy it up again and make some money? We want Savannah to go bankrupt."
I know. I was as surprised as you are. So I suppose I should explain the new mindset of some of the smartest people in Savannah, who are betting on bankruptcy as the best way to build our future, and they're using Detroit as their model.
Detroit right now is one of the hottest cities in America. Two years ago, however, it was plunged into bankruptcy for the same nagging problems that affect us now: rising crime and taxes, high poverty levels, unemployment, municipal mismanagement. When Detroit went bust, buyers flooded the depressed market and bought up real estate at prices unseen in decades. After the bailout money and investment dollars from industry rolled in, the first in were the first out-- at a handsome profit-- then left the second wave of newcomers and pioneers to work out the recovery. Bankruptcy, therefore, was the best thing to happen to Detroit since the Tigers won the World Series in 1984.
Now back to Savannah: this old friend of mine who hopes I'll opt out of the mayor's race just so happens to be the third generation of an old Savannah family that has owned buildings on Broughton Street for the past hundred years. He sold the last of his family legacy to Ben Carter last year while the developer was paying record prices for properties-- "science fiction prices", he relates-- the likes of which he never expects to see again in this lifetime. In his educated opinion, Mr. Carter has inflated a real estate bubble on Broughton that is doomed to burst. "I know a little something about Broughton Street," says my friend, "and for the life of me I can't make Ben's numbers work. I mean, we'd all love to see him succeed. But I can find better deals for square footage on Madison Avenue in New York City than I can on Broughton Street, Savannah, today."
So the local smart money has bailed on Broughton and moved outside the city limits to wait for Ben Carter to build hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place and then when we land on those spaces and can't pay the rents it's game over. Only we can't put this game back in the box like Monopoly; we have to keep on playing. And the smart money sits and waits for Ben to go bust and then they'll rush in and buy up Broughton for pennies on the dollar and make out like bandits when the recovery rolls around, ala Detroit.
"Do you know how many little people that will destroy?" I asked my friend.
"Little people always get destroyed," he said. "That's why they're little. So what else is new?"
"I'd still rather fix what's broken than sit by and watch the city run off the rails," I said.
"You're not going to win," he said. "The smart money-- the status quo-- is betting against you. Hell, even Ben Carter is counting the days until he can bundle up Broughton and sell it off to some big bank and split before we go to shit. And even if you do win, you can't fix this mess. You might as well get out of the way and go home. All of the other old Savannah families have sold off their properties and left town. You think you're smarter than they are? You are not, sir. Not if you think that Ben Carter is Mr. Monopoly."
We live in cynical times, friends. To run for mayor is to be told by your old friends that the fix is in, the game is broken, and the only way to win is to sit and wait for the bottom to drop out then swoop in and make a killing. Apparently, I'm in the way of Progress.
Maybe that's why my campaign is getting by on nickel and dime contributions: all the big money is supporting the incumbent. All the big money is betting on bankruptcy.