Are struggling downtown areas shortchanged by local elections?

I can’t even begin to say how many frustrated downtown residents, commercial property owners, and business owners I know right now in Savannah.

In my City Talk column today, I close with some lengthy (for a newspaper column like mine) ruminations about the general powerlessness of those downtown populations at the ballot box. In part, I said this:

Since aldermanic elections are obviously based on population rather than economic activity, downtown business owners – those who felt the brunt of the recession – often feel voiceless.

At the same time, there’s not a single alderman who needs to do especially well among downtown voters to guarantee his or her election.

The Landmark Historic District and historic neighborhoods to the south are carved up between the first and second districts, but the bulk of the population in those districts lies in other neighborhoods east or west.

In theory, the current district maps could be a boon for downtown by giving even more aldermen a political stake in the area. But there’s a widespread sense that the snaggletooth district boundaries work against the interests of downtown residents and businesses. That has created something of a divide between neighborhoods.

In part the divide is racial. In part, economic.

But in large part the divide stems from practical concerns.

Savannah’s oldest neighborhoods simply have different needs and concerns than much of the city on a variety of issues, including traffic, pedestrianism, parking, mixed use zoning, tourism, nightlife, historic standards and on and on.

By the way, Savannah is by no means the only city with a political system that might not serve its downtown well.

For example, my hometown of Frankfort, Ky., has a beautiful and historic downtown, but the city council members are not elected from specific districts. So there’s no guarantee any elected official will have a clear understanding of downtown’s needs or have a base of support among downtown residents.

Ruel Joyner, president of Savannah’s Downtown Business Association and owner of 24e on Broughton Street, was handily defeated by West Savannah incumbent Van Johnson in the first district race. Gretchen Ernest got less attention in her bid to unseat eastside representative Mary Osborne — the challenger Ernest did better than Joyner but still lost by a wide margin. These two cases share striking similarities. Incumbent aldermen who have lost the support of many downtown voters found themselves opposed by candidates who have a direct stake in the downtown area and a considerable grasp of its needs and problems.

It’s tempting to look at these votes through a racial lens: both challengers were white, and both lost to black incumbents in majority black districts.

But the problems are also geographical and cultural. Downtown Savannah has different needs than the neighborhoods to the east and west, as I note in the quote from my column above.

If we had a single aldermanic district running roughly from East Broad to MLk on the east and west, and from the river to Victory Drive on the north and south, that district would have something less than 15,000 residents. That’s not enough to justify a single district — each Savannah aldermanic district right now should have about 22,500 residents. Still, putting all those voters into a single district would probably give those downtown neighborhoods more clout than they currently have.

One could argue that those residents to the east and west have plenty in common with the older neighborhoods closer to downtown — including crime, education, and other key quality of life measures. One could also argue that residents of those neighborhoods just outside the core of the city have a huge stake in the success of downtown in terms of jobs and the regional economy generally. One could argue that the the two aldermen at large and the mayor will represent the interests of downtown no matter what.

But I hear routinely from downtown area residents north of Victory Drive who feel that the city is not only being unsupportive, but is actively antagonistic, especially to business interests.

I’d be curious to hear of any examples of other cities with systems of representation that might be shortchanging their downtowns.

I’ll close with this map, which shows the percentage change in population from 2000 to 2010, by census tract. Yellow indicates areas of population loss. As you can see, nearly all of Savannah’s core neighborhoods are losing population, a trend that will only be exacerbated by poor governance. The reduced population could then contribute even more to the neglect of struggling, aging neighborhoods in Savannah’s core. It’s a vicious cycle.

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