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Art School Revitalizes Savannah - 2002-08-14

All across the United States, communities are recognizing the economic value of art. In one city in the heart of the historic South, art and economy took off in tandem with the arrival of a private school attracting young people with creative minds.

Nicholas Radcowski is an illustration student at the Savannah College of Art and Design. With pencil in hand and a large drawing pad balanced on his knee, he sits near a fountain trying to get just the right perspective on one of the Savannah's historic landmarks.

"Right here, I'm looking at where the brick crosswalks intersect, that's my foreground and in the background is the cathedral," he said.

Since the College opened in 1978, students have made countless drawings of this picturesque Southern city on the Georgia coast and Savannah has gained new life.

A cappuccino would seem an unlikely symbol of that new life. But this downtown coffee shop would have had a hard time surviving the past nine years without the college and its more than 6,000 students, faculty and staff. Owner Judy Davis says all of her employees and 40 percent of her customers study or work at the art school.

"They are hard-core coffee drinkers. Or tea," she said. "I have a large tea clientele. A lot of international students come in here and they go for tea."

Savannah's prosperity has been linked to its booming seaport ever since the first English colonists settled here in the early 1700s. But its maritime industries couldn't save the city in the mid-1900s, when, as in other older communities, people and jobs started fleeing to the suburbs. But more than 40 buildings, carefully restored and renovated by the college, have helped revive economic life in this once-dying downtown landscape.

Theater students rehearse their performances in a building that used to house a nationwide linen distributor. Behemoth spaces that were once empty department stores and derelict warehouses now house an art library, two theaters, numerous galleries and spaces for classrooms and offices.

Historic preservationist Hugh Golson says it's difficult to find use for large retail and industrial buildings and the college, known locally as SCAD, has made a unique contribution to the city's urban renaissance.

"We can do residential buildings almost anywhere," he said. "You can talk people into returning to the old buildings, and reliving them. But it's the large buildings that are so difficult to do. So many large commercial buildings and industrial buildings are too expensive. We cannot convert all of them into useable facilities and historic preservation normally fails in those areas. But SCAD has filled that void."

With the college's restored buildings spread throughout the 6.5-square-kilometer Historic District, students weave their way from class to class on bikes. Savannah College of Art and Design President Paula Wallace sees this non-traditional campus as one of the school's assets.

"So the students really get that sense of not living on an isolated college campus," she said. "They're really living in a very charming, historic environment. I think that's inspirational to them and I think they just enjoy the quality of life that they find here."

That's what drew Michael Wilson Morgan to SCAD. The second-year graduate student came to the Georgia school from neighboring Alabama.

"As far as finding who I am and what I wanted to do, it was very easy to do in this city, especially being surrounded by hundreds of artists in this community," he siad.

A good number of students have chosen to stay in Savannah after they graduate, adding to the college's $70-$95 million annual impact on the city. Coffee shop owner Judy Davis sees another impact of the new focus on the arts, a tangible change in the social fabric of this sometimes stodgy old Southern city where cotton was once king.

"It's giving an alternative vibe where everything isn't totally mainstream because the artist influence is there," she said. "They're going to try extreme things all the time, artistically, fashion-wise and music."

The mixing of old and new, and stodgy and extreme, hasn't come without conflict. Some downtown residents and businesses complain about the higher taxes they have to pay now that their properties are worth more. But given the transformation Savannah has experienced since becoming an arts mecca, few are complaining very loudly.