Savannah, Georgia: Mayor Otis Johnson

Mayor Otis Johnson - Savannah, GASavannah often is compared to New Orleans because it is a fun, party town that hosts a staggering number of annual events. By far its largest is on St. Patrick's Day, the city's equivalent of Mardi Gras, when the operative color is simply green. The parade is the featured act and, since schools are shut down, kids are among the vocal participants. Sizable numbers march as members of school bands; all are like leprechauns – little hand-waving ambassadors with big smiles.

For those who don't want to join the 400,000 or so revelers on St. Patrick's Day, related events provide good, wholesome fun, and many activities are geared to families. Mayor Otis S. Johnson, Ph.D., a tall man 69 years young, points out: "Leading up to our biggest day of the year, there is the selection of the parade marshal, the Irish Festival, the Shamrock Run and more. And on the night of March 17, the Hibernian Society stages its annual dinner for some 600 – men only. It is a tradition here that dates back to 1789."

Johnson elaborated on the number of festivals – some 200 – held each year, which encourages not only tourists but those who live nearby to take a trip downtown. Among the popular events is a crafts festival put on by the Riverfront Association the first weekend of each month.

Forsythe Park - Savannah - Georgia - Historic District"The city of Savannah sponsors many free, cultural events, as well as supports events such as the Savannah Music Festival," the mayor explained. "We have a budget of $800,000 for this, and we feel it helps the local merchants and in general adds to the quality of life here. Because we celebrate our diversity, many festivals are for ethnic groups. We give sizable donations to the Asian, Latino and Black Heritage festivals. We have a citizens' panel which decides if a proposed event should be given funding. The Asian Festival at the Civic Center represents 14 different Asian groups, and the food stations are remarkable, as are the dance performances. Similarly, all of the various Latin groups come together to put on the Latino Festival. The Greek, Italian and Jewish communities are able to support their own festivals, and, of course, the public comes, providing revenue."

Tourists will notice two interesting aspects of the Savannah scene: Even though they can walk the Historic District with alcoholic beverages in to-go cups, the city is nearly litter-free.

"Like The Crescent City, we adhere to that laissez faire attitude, but, along with the to-go-cup ordinance, we enforce the public intoxication and disturbing the peace ordinances. I believe my freedom ends where yours gets too strong, so there is a fine line between the two. Another challenge is underage drinking and false IDs. There are 9,000 students at Savannah College of Art & Design, plus those at two state universities, along with military personnel who are under 21," Johnson said.

Oktoberfest - Savannah River - GA - Waterfront"As for the litter or lack thereof, we have crews working on that 24/7 and are proud of our clean city," he added. "You would be amazed, but the morning after the St. Patrick's Day celebration, it is all back to normal."

On the subject of SCAD, Johnson elaborated: "It is one of the highest rated art schools, with branches in Atlanta, France and Hong Kong. It brings in people from all over the world for their fabulous events. Another element that enriches the city are the transplants and retirees who have migrated here. They broaden our horizons culturally and sit on the boards of art institutions and support the arts financially."

Historic District Houses - Savannah, GA homesWhen asked to compare and contrast his city with Charleston, Savannah's mayor replied: "People see us as Charleston's little tomboy sister, smaller and more casual. I don't buy into the rivalry. If there is one, it is more like a family rivalry. As to how I would compare the two, I think we have a broader range of accommodations in our Historic District. About 10 years ago, our hotel building boom began. More recently, within blocks of the riverfront, a number of less-expensive chain properties were added to the inventory, as well as moderately-priced ones such as the Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express. Our slightly older, mid-rise hotels, such as the riverfront Hyatt and the Hilton Savannah DeSoto, have completed major renovations. As for our restaurants, the competition has become keen, and new ones that are not up to the mark don't make it. And our night life is legendary."

Johnson, Savannah's second African-American mayor, is in his eighth and final year of office. Unlike in Charleston, where Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. has reigned for more than 35 years, there is a twoterm limit in Savannah.

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