How To Save Galveston, Part 3: Gettin' Its Savannah On

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This week, Hair Balls is examining the many and varied roads Galveston could take to recover from Hurricane Ike. This week's cover story explores the possibility of casino gambling, while an earlier post here discusses Galveston relying on its existing, tried-and-true economic drivers. A third envisions Galveston as the Hong Kong of the Gulf of Mexico, and one from a few weeks back casts Galveston as a commuter rail suburb of Houston.

This one looks away to Dixieland -- Savannah, Ga. to be exact -- for two ideas.

Galveston has always been one of the more prominent tourist destinations in Texas, but Island blogger / financial analyst David Stanowski thinks it is still underachieving. In his view, Galveston the historic city and Galveston the Island of beach fun are two distinct locales and should be marketed as such.

"What we can afford to do usually ends up a bunch of jump-cuts where you have the beach, Moody Gardens, and razzmatazz," he tells Hair Balls. "You need a slower pace for the Strand -- a slogan like 'Come to Galveston and Chill Out in the 19th Century.'"

In Stanowski's view, The Strand and Galveston's other older sections are every bit as quaint and historically significant as those of three cities he sees as its older sisters -- New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston, SC.

"I just can't believe that we've been missing that opportunity [to market Galveston]," he says. "I don't know if it's just an inferiority complex - if people believe we are just not as pretty or historical or classy as Savannah or Charleston. I know some people refer to Galveston as a mini-New Orleans, and that might be closer on target than Savannah or Charleston."

While those cities are all decades older and larger than Galveston, the Island has some advantages they do not. "New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston are not right on the beach," Stanowski says. "You have to go 40 to 60 miles to get to the water from those towns."

But that has been a mixed blessing for Galveston, Stanowski believes. "In some ways they are lucky because they market themselves as these historical places. They don't try to market themselves as beach towns, they don't get confused."  

Meanwhile, Galveston's schizo tourist infrastructure favors the beach at the expense of the old city. Stanowski grouses that there are no bus or walking tours of The Strand or the other historical neighborhoods, but cites last year's reenactment of the Civil War Battle of Galveston as a step in the right direction.

Perhaps a literary form of marketing might just be the ticket. "We haven't had a book like Savannah had," he points out, referring to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil the 1994 true-crime blockbuster that spawned a mini-boom for all things Savannah.

"Just a free market idea - we ought to institute a $5,000 prize to be judged by a committee here, to the person who writes the book that captures the character and color of Galveston in the way that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did for Savannah," Stanowski says. "If we could only tell our story, about what a crazy, kooky, colorful place we are."

Maybe another aspect of Savannah could hold the key for Galveston's revitalization. Much like its fellow cotton-port Galveston, Savannah had a rough 20th Century, and by the 1970s, downtown was full of empty storefronts and crumbling warehouses.

In 1978, a quartet of newcomers to the town bought a couple of old buildings and opened the Savannah College of Art and Design. Thirty-one years later, it's enrollment is approaching 10,000 students and it has a satellite campus in Atlanta. In Savannah, SCAD has no campus per se -- they simply house their classrooms and administration in existing building stock.

Galveston Historical Foundation Director Dwayne Jones says that something similar in Galveston has been considered and is a promising idea.  

"I think what SCAD has done for Savannah has been really remarkable," he says. "It's really made Savannah a teaching laboratory as well as helped the economy. We've been talking about this since long before the storm and what I've always said is that Galveston is equally fascinating and interesting as Savannah as a teaching laboratory, and a great setting for the arts to be. And the preservation -- all of things here would be really wonderful. Really, there's no place in Texas that could work as well."

Jones believes that no Texas locale is as rich in architectural history as Galveston. "There is almost nowhere in this country, but certainly nowhere in Texas, where you can see the linear development of urban America," he says. "We have every period and type of urban development here in the island, just in a smaller area. Even up to the late 20th Century with New Urbanism with Beachtown. You can walk street after street in this town and you see a wonderful geometry of history and architecture come together."

What's more, Jones points out that there no prominent arts/design colleges in Texas, and Galveston has plenty of buildings just laying around waiting easy conversion to schoolrooms.  "We have buildings that would be easily adapted for classrooms and they've got offices in there as well - all that stuff fits so well into what we already have, and it doesn't require significant modifications," he says.

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