Georgia's oldest city is gearing up for the South's largest St. Patrick's Day parade this weekend. It's a 195-year-old tradition started by Irish immigrants to Savannah that has ballooned into one of the region's most popular street parties after Mardi Gras.
Streamers of cardboard shamrocks and green T-shirts with bawdy slogans were on display Wednesday outside bars and storefronts along Savannah's historic downtown riverfront. Street musician Marion May wore a large leprechaun hat as he played his flute for visitors strolling past a fountain filled with water stained a verdant shade of green.
"People from across the county, all crevices and cracks, are going to be coming here," said May, 71, who on St. Patrick's Day often sets up with his bucket for collecting tips in nearby Johnson Square. "If they're not Irish, they're going to be Irish for one day. Like me."
Like New York and Chicago, Savannah will hold its parade Saturday, the day before the traditional March 17 holiday. Nobody performs any official crowd estimate in Savannah, but parade organizers in the past have figured some of the largest crowds exceeded 500,000. Most of the area's 16,000 hotel rooms are booked, said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the city's tourism bureau.
"You partner terrific weather with a Saturday parade and we are expecting large crowds," Marinelli said. "And this is more than just a two- or three-day weekend. It potentially could grow into a four- or five-day weekend for some of our visitors coming to town."
Spring-like temperatures in the 60s are forecast for St. Patrick's Day weekend. There's also a small chance for rain on Saturday, though parade organizers don't seem concerned. "It's going to be a beautiful day," Bubba Edgerly, chairman of the Savannah St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee, assured reporters at a Wednesday news conference. "We've been praying at church."
For many business owners in downtown Savannah, St. Patrick's Day is typically the most profitable time of the year. That's especially true when the parade falls on a weekend, which won't happen again until 2024.
Melissa Swanson, owner of The Rail Pub in downtown Savannah, said customers are typically lined up down the block when she opens at 8 a.m. on parade days to serve breakfast with green grits and bloody marys.
This St. Patrick's Day weekend, Swanson figures her customers will drain 350 cases of Miller Lite and 26 kegs of Guinness. She adds: "We serve 80 other kinds of beer." "There is no other weekend that compares to St. Patrick's Day," Swanson said. "The closest I think you'll get is Halloween when it's on a weekend. But it's not even half of what St. Patrick's is."