From Theory to Practice

Analysis of a Town

Theory has its merits. So does getting your hands dirty. A class from the Urban Studies and Planning (USP) program gained practical experience working in the neighboring town of Thunderbolt, Georgia, which shares waterfront with SSU.

Sitting on a bluff above the river, Thunderbolt has been a vibrant community for centuries. Early natives fished in the area, a tradition that survives to this day. The town is small, fewer than 3,000 residents. Its housing ranges from century-old fisherman bungalows to luxury condos overlooking the tidal marsh.

It is host to an elementary and high school, a public library, a museum, a marina and a handful of restaurants. Before a road went all the way out to Tybee Island, Thunderbolt was a popular spot in the summer for swimming, dancing and concerts. Today, it is mainly a shrimping epicenter for local fishermen. It’s a quiet neighborhood but development is booming on all sides of the tiny town.

In 2014, Caroline Hankins, the town administrator of Thunderbolt, reached out to Deden Rukmana, Ph.D., to assist with a residential survey. Rukmana is the coordinator of the USP program at SSU. Students collaborated with Thunderbolt officials to find out what residents thought about a Homestead Exemption in the tax code. The provision allows homeowners to freeze the taxable value of their property, ensuring that residents do not become priced out of their own homes, but it also limits the amount of revenue taken in by the town.


Savannah State students went door-to-door and asked property owners if they were familiar with the homestead exemption practice, if they would support it and how pleased they were with their current neighborhood and housing situation.

Students also collected anonymous demographic information so they could later cross-reference and analyze the findings. The report combined the citizens’ responses with examination of the respondents. Through precise analysis, SSU students correctly predicted the outcome of the homestead exemption referendum.

Brian Brainerd, graduate student, thinks the proximity to SSU’s campus and the shared history was a boon for the project. “The small size of the community is a real benefit because of the constraints on students, too. We have a very limited amount of time to do the work, so Thunderbolt is a good fit because it is only about one mile square.”

In 2015, Hankins again approached the USP program to assist with an update to the official town comprehensive plan. A new version of the plan is required to be filed with the state every 10 years.

The town held public meetings for comment but few responded, so Rukmana called on his Research Methods class to handle initial information gathering. The SSU students surveyed residents, asking varied questions about their vision for the next decade in Thunderbolt.

The students included inquiries about infrastructure, development, recreation and business. Respondents rated statements such as the Town of Thunderbolt “should have more bike paths,” “has enough restaurants,” and “should have
more trees” on the scale of 1 to 5.

By going door-to-door, 10 students collected 88 responses, making sure to approach a cross-section of Thunderbolt’s demographics. Kellie Fletcher, one of Rukmana’s graduate students, noted the significance of speaking directly to residents. “Speaking to the residents was really my favorite part of the project. When I first went out surveying I was a bit nervous even though I had driven through and eaten at restaurants a million times in Thunderbolt. The first house I went to was pretty early on a Saturday morning. … A wonderful petite older woman came to the door and I introduced myself and told her about the project. She immediately invited me inside and insisted on making me coffee and sitting in the most comfortable chair in her house. We talked way longer than was necessary but she gave me very detailed answers to each question and shared information that we did not cover on the survey, which was so insightful.”

The students then created in-depth tables that tallied the answers and included citizen comments. From there, Rukmana led his students through the process of translating that information into actionable ideas.


Students did site surveys using mapping tools, overlaying the imagery with street and parcel grids. They investigated the buildable lots, infill opportunities and the flood zone guidelines.

Rukmana delivered the findings to Hankins, with the students’ ideas and recommendations. But the class wouldn’t let the project go. They continued to meet and discuss ideas long after the course was over. Graduate student Terrance Grasty notes that the real life aspect of it was especially important. “It was great to know that what we learned in the course can actually be implemented to assist in the planning process of a small town. It was important to be able to put theory into practice.”

“It was great working with the students,” says Hankins, town administrator of Thunderbolt. “They were extremely engaged and asked great questions about the Town and the comprehensive plan process. The survey is a great tool that will enable the Town to get a broader perspective of what the citizens would like to see for the future of Thunderbolt.”

Grasty adds, “It was a welcomed opportunity to get to know our Savannah State University neighbors.”

This article first appeared in Impressions, Fall 2016