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Book Heralds a New Chapter in Savannah’s Fortunes : Tourism: ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,’ a best-selling travel guide and murder mystery, has prompted a swarm of visitors to the Southern city.

From Bloomberg Business News

Don Ramert had never heard of Savannah until he read the book.

“I was on Chapter 3 when I made my reservations to come here,” said the Ontario, Canada, native, wolfing down creamed corn enriched with bacon drippings and buttery bowlfuls of squash au gratin at a packed Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House, a local lunch institution.

In just about anywhere else in the South, “The Book” would mean the Bible. Not in Savannah, a graceful town of 140,000 on Georgia’s Coastal Empire, a tiny sliver of land on the Atlantic Ocean in the southern part of the state. Here it’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” a wildly successful nonfiction travel guide and murder mystery that’s generating worldwide publicity for the city, spawning a tourist boom and, many say, single-handedly revitalizing the local economy.

“It’s happening, and we all believe it’s the book,” said Armstrong State University history professor John Duncan, who also runs a small antique map, print and book shop on the ground floor of a pre-Civil War mansion in the heart of the city’s historical district. Business, he says, has never been better.

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It would be hard to find anyone willing to utter that sentiment just a few years ago in this sleepy town, known more for its hundreds of restored 18th- and 19th-Century homes and aged oak trees dripping with Spanish moss than for being a money magnet.

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Now, evidence of the boom is everywhere. Airliners fly into Savannah nearly full, breaking boarding records each month. Hotels are packed, averaging better than an 85% occupancy rate; more than a thousand new rooms are being built. Long-vacant downtown retail space is being snatched up and refurbished.

Broughton Street, one of the main thoroughfares of Savannah’s historical district, had become woefully run-down in recent years. Since the book’s publication, 19 businesses have opened on the downtown drag just six blocks from the Savannah River, adding 224 jobs.

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Hollywood also has discovered Savannah: Tom Hanks, as Forrest Gump, sat on a park bench eating chocolates in front of one of the city’s 21 park-like squares. “Now and Then,” a coming-of-age comedy starring Demi Moore that opened in October, was filmed in the city, one of a dozen major productions since “Midnight.”

As the money pours in, almost every local business is seeing a payoff. Backus Cadillac, for instance, is in the midst of its best year since the 1970s. Revenue has increased 10% so far in 1995, after gaining 20% last year, putting Backus’ sales in the top 1% of all Cadillac dealerships nationwide.

The economic explosion has even trickled down to the day laborers--roofers, gardeners, movers--lining up for work at the downtown Savannah Labor Center.

“This line used to move real slow, and now we’re in here one minute and out on a job the next,” said Dennis Powell, who’s been working day jobs for nearly 10 years.

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“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” written by former New York magazine editor John Berendt, was published in January, 1994. The book has gone through 60 printings, sold more than 715,000 copies and occupied a top perch (from No. 1 to No. 6) on the New York Times bestseller list for the past 88 weeks. The book is now available in 11 foreign editions.

Random House, the publisher, has put “Midnight” on its perennial list, intending to keep both hard- and soft-cover editions in print “forever.”

Warner Brothers bought the screen rights and has set a preliminary $40-million budget for the movie.

The book centers on a 1980s Savannah murder in which noted antiques dealer and respected art historian James Williams shot his part-time employee Danny Hansford, a turbulent redneck gigolo.

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Woven through this neo-Gothic tale is a panoply of downtown Savannah characters, including a piano-playing con artist, a black drag queen, a recluse with a bottle of poison potent enough to wipe out the entire city, and a voodoo priestess who works her magic in graveyards at midnight.

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In Savannah, there’s no shortage of people these days interested in seeing what Berendt saw.

“Tourism is driving this city’s economy,” said Jeffrey Humphreys, director of economic forecasting at the University of Georgia. “It’s not a company town.”

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That’s no understatement: The only major companies within 75 miles are Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. and Great Dane Trailers.

As for tourism, Savannah’s room-tax collections rose 18.3% in the second quarter from the year-ago period--the biggest gain ever. This number is especially impressive because no hotel rooms were added.

That’s about to change. Hampton Inn is opening a 150-room budget hotel. And the posh Greenbriar Resort Management Co., which operates one of the nation’s toniest resorts, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., has picked Savannah as the site for its first expansion: a $90-million, 400-room project on the banks of the Savannah River.

Convention bookings are soaring too--up 40% in 1994, according to the Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau. In 1995, bookings will be up another 30%, the bureau estimates.

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Passengers are flocking into Savannah International Airport--which received a $74-million face lift in 1994--in never-before-seen numbers.

USAir Group Inc., which has been operating in Savannah since 1984, has been setting monthly passenger boarding records each month this year.

ValuJet Airlines Inc., which started service in December after customers barraged the airline with a write-in campaign to include Savannah in its route system, now runs three flights a day between its hub in Atlanta and Savannah and says that the planes fly near capacity. Even Delta Air Lines Inc., which has been slashing its domestic routes, just added direct service between Savannah and Cincinnati.

The increase in curious travelers means higher times for retailers. Employment at stores is up 3.5% this year, with 1,500 jobs added in the past year.

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More and more visitors are putting down roots here: The county’s population has increased nearly 5% in the past four years, while nearly every other Georgia city is losing people to Atlanta.

All of this has local taxpayers feeling flush and generous. Last year, they backed a $185-million bond issue to build nine schools and renovate 16. And the city is putting up a $70-million trade center, hoping to land big conventions.

With “Midnight” so intimately linked with Savannah’s economic rebirth, it’s no surprise that there’s a thriving cottage industry tied directly to the book.

Clary’s Cafe, a key congregating place for the book’s main characters, is packed with visitors these days. The owner of the trendy eatery--which boasts an old-fashioned soda fountain, sidewalk tables and a loyal breakfast and lunch clientele--has installed a stained-glass window depicting “The Bird Girl,” the book’s haunting cover image. So far, the cafe has sold more than 1,250 autographed books.

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Nancy Hillis--known in the book as Mandy, a former winner of the Miss Big Beautiful Woman competition, who, along with her boyfriend, spends much of the book breaking into and living in some of Savannah’s finest historic homes--has published a map of key “Midnight” spots. At $4.95 each, Hillis has sold more than 5,000 copies.

Lucy Cobb, who runs Tapestry Tours, is one of a dozen local bus companies crisscrossing Savannah day and night, tailoring their tours to landmarks in the book.

“Have you read the book?” Cobb asks visitors boarding her bus for the 4 1/2-hour, $60 tour. Main sights to see: where Berendt holed up while writing and the homes of the book’s characters.

Jack Leigh, who shot the book’s cover, is displaying his photographs at the Southern Images Gallery on Ogelthorpe Street.

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The gallery is selling 250 limited-edition, signed prints of “The Photograph” for $250 apiece. Posters of the shot cost $50.


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