Torrent awaiting Savannah lies dormant

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on June 8, 2004.

SAVANNAH -- Georgia's First City settled into a lazy waiting mode Monday, keyed up for today's beginning of the G-8 Sea Island summit.

With little on either the official or alternative agendas, security personnel patrolled sparsely populated streets. Tourists were staying away, protesters hadn't yet arrived and government officials willing to do anything newsworthy were in short supply.

The highlight of the day was national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's pre-summit news briefing. In the space of a half-hour she said that an agreement to transfer power to an Iraqi government would come in "a couple days," urged Israel and the Palestinians to move forward with respective stability-building steps and eulogized former President Reagan.

Over the next three days, Rice said, the leaders of the Group of Eight countries will address issues dealing with the Middle East, weapons of mass destruction, African economic development and the environment.

"The G-8 leaders have a full agenda," she said, "and they will agree this week to launch many new initiatives to advance freedom by strengthening international cooperation."

Such issues seemed far away from the streets of downtown Savannah, which bustled with more police and military officers than tourists and residents.

The few visitors who were on hand said they either didn't know about the summit or hadn't expected it to have such an effect in this town, 80 miles from the actual meeting on Sea Island. The historic gathering involves leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States.

"We were surprised in Hilton Head when they broke into the Tony Awards to tell us [President] Bush had landed," said Art Lundberg, a vacationing Ohioan day-tripping to Savannah with some friends. "We didn't think it would spread this far."

But most tourists -- as well as many locals -- appeared to have stayed away from the area entirely.

"It's the worst we've ever had it," said Kim Vanek, a bartender at Kevin Barry's, an Irish pub. "There's no place for the tourists to stay and the locals are afraid to come down."

Driving to work Monday morning was "eerie," she said, with meager traffic and a multitude of police officers. "You feel like you're being watched all the time."

Charles Bectan, owner of B. Matthew's, a sandwich shop a few blocks from the pub, said that as a veteran the number of uniformed personnel didn't bother him. The lack of business, however, did.

Receipts at the store over the weekend were down about 60 percent, Bectan estimated, and with many of the nearby businesses shuttered for the week, he didn't expect things to get any better.

Things were just as slow inside the International Media Center, where about 3,100 screened and searched journalists attended sporadic low-level briefings and listened to local and state officials tout the beauty, charm and economy of Savannah and Georgia.

Many visiting reporters had expressed interest in city tours focused on ghosts, books and history, said Melissa Yao, vice president of communication for Savannah's visitors bureau, although few had signed up by early Monday evening.

"There is a buzz about it," she said. "This is our chance to show them what Savannah has to offer."

One place doing business: the Sea Island Grill, an improvised steakhouse serving volunteers, reporters and security officers. Halfway through lunch, the restaurant had served about 80 diners, a number expected to double over the next hour, said Richard Dipirro, a food service manager with Savor Savannah Catering, which oversaw the operation.

"Everything is going very smoothly," Dipirro said. "We haven't seen any large problems."

Along with those looking for fun, travelers to Savannah who came with perhaps a more serious purpose also were in short supply. The few protesters on the streets weren't actually protesting yet, still gearing up for events planned for later in the week.

Curtis Wade was one of a group walking to a nearby park where they were hoping to start work on a wall. The group, which had come down from Atlanta to protest "the war in Afghanistan, in Iraq -- that sort of stuff," hadn't been able to find much going on.

"There's nobody here but us, it looks like," he said. "It'd be silly, the 10 of us, having a march. It'd just be us walking around."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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