Girl Scouts, cookies, and sidewalk sales

Every year when I would see Girl Scouts selling cookies from a table in front of the Juliette Gordon Low Home, I’d have the same thought: “Why can’t every business do that on their sidewalk if there’s still plenty of room for pedestrians?”

Apparently at least one other person was bothered by the obvious inequity (even if it is Girl Scouts): someone made a complaint to the city’s zoning administrator. The details are in the Savannah Morning News today.

Savannah has wide sidewalks in its major commercial corridors — far wider than those on King Street in Charleston, for example. There’s plenty of room along Bull Street for outdoor cafe tables, and the city has very slowly become more accepting of those. But not for putting any products at all on the sidewalk, despite the huge success of an sidewalk sale sponsored by the Downtown Business Association.

I had hoped that we were going to see a new era when it would be perfectly acceptable for a retailer to put a rack of items on the sidewalk — or whatever they wanted to put there that still left plenty of room for pedestrians. In recent budget cuts, the city told residents and businesses that they are responsible for the appearance of the right of way in front of their properties, but a business still can’t put in products on that right of way, even as it is required to maintain the tree lawn.

Some downtown residents have told me that they think outdoor sales or displays would make the city look cheap. I couldn’t disagree more. Not all retailers would put goods on the sidewalk, and those that do would make sure their displays are nice and their products are secure. Decades ago, Savannah had three to four times the number of residents downtown that it has now. In that era of fewer automobiles and less sprawl, downtown was bustling with commercial activity. We’ve largely lost that urban feel, and many of our current ordinances have had the effect of sanitizing the city — and hurting business in the process.

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