Only three decades have passed since the Savannah College of Art & Design began in Georgia’s oldest city, but even in that short time the school has given Savannah a historic boost in business, tourism and international panache.

The private college now has more than 9,000 students enrolled on its campuses in Savannah, Atlanta and Lacoste, France.

A study of Georgia’s independent colleges and universities estimated that SCAD created nearly 5,000 jobs and an economic impact of almost $244 million in 2003.

But SCAD’s role can’t be calculated simply with cold statistics. The college has been much more intimately involved in Savannah’s development than numbers can express.

One can scarcely walk Savannah’s downtown squares or drive beneath its moss-draped live oak canopies without noticing tangible signs of the vitality SCAD has helped create.

Of the 70-or-so buildings scattered around the city that bear the SCAD name, only three were newly built, according to Melissa Wheeler, a SCAD spokeswoman.

Some 67 others were restored, many becoming live classrooms for students learning the discipline of historic preservation from an institution that has quickly gone from “a small art college to a world-renowned” leader in art, design and community revitalization, said Lise Sundrla, executive director of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority.

SCAD’s focus on polishing Savannah’s architectural treasures came as a result of co-founder and current President Paula Wallace’s vision of simultaneously helping the city and her students.

“When (SCAD) came into existence, Paula Wallace had a vision of making downtown a classroom,” said Ms. Sundrla, whose organization serves as the development-planning and marketing arm for Savannah’s downtown area.

That renaissance has been enormously successful over the past 30 years as one of the many ways SCAD has had far-reaching positive effects on the local economy.

Along with the Port of Savannah, which helped the city and the surrounding area export more than $2 billion in goods during 2006, tourism has become one of the city’s biggest economic development tools.

Ms. Sundrla said Savannah’s historic Southern charm would probably have always drawn a contingent of history aficionados regardless of aesthetics, but SCAD’s restorative work and student population have helped the city appeal to a wider audience.

The tourism industry now supports 16,000 jobs and creates $238 million in annual revenue, numbers she said would have been impossible without the investment SCAD has made on its own and spurred in the community.

“What SCAD has been able to do is to put us on the minds of people who would not have thought about it otherwise,” she told GlobalAtlanta.

The same can be said for companies looking for a place to start operations, Lynn Pitts, senior vice president at the Savannah Economic Development Authority, told GlobalAtlanta during an interview in Savannah.

SCAD has been a key part of citywide efforts to attract knowledge-based businesses, those involved in industries like Internet/digital media production, architecture and product design, among others.

The Creative Coast Alliance, a public/private entity chartered by the economic development authority, focuses exclusively on fostering a city environment where these types of businesses can easily set up and thrive.

Mr. Pitts said that Savannah is still an “emerging market” for such enterprises but that SCAD should be credited with much of the progress so far in transforming Savannah a city simply enthralled by history to one increasingly focused on the future.

“There are other components, but (SCAD) is probably the single largest,” Mr. Pitts said.

With 40 major degree programs, SCAD has a large pool of qualified laborers from which companies can recruit.

Chris Morrill, assistant to the Savannah city manager, said this is an important part of the city’s pitch to companies considering the Savannah/Chatham County area.

“More and more you’re seeing that communities that are successful in attracting and growing those types of businesses have strong universities,” he said.

SCAD has also capitalized on and contributed to the city’s increasingly cosmopolitan flair. In the fall semester of 2007, SCAD students hailed from 99 countries, up from 78 in the same semester in 2003.

About 10 percent of the student body is international, including about one-fifth of graduate students. A high concentration of SCAD’s international base comes from Asia, the top countries of origin being South Korea, Taiwan, China and India respectively.

Tom Gattis, chair of the college’s top-rated industrial design school, said that fostering international programs and partnerships with global companies has become an indispensable part of a productive educational experience.

Mr. Gattis led GlobalAtlanta on a tour of the industrial design school, housed in a former Sears building now known as “Gulfstream” because the Savannah-based aerospace company donated money to help pay for it.

During a walkthrough and subsequent interview, Mr. Gattis gave an overview of the school’s corporate partnerships.

In May, students traveled to China and toured factories and offices, including those of Hong Kong-based electronics manufacturer VTech. Three SCAD students landed internships as a result of that trip.

On the U.S. side, the industrial design school also nurtures partnerships with Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. and JCB, a U.K.-based construction equipment manufacturer with North American headquarters in Savannah.

Travel helps students think differently about design education, Mr. Gattis said.

“It opens your eyes and makes you realize that the world’s a big place and there’s a lot to learn,” he said.

It also raises SCAD’s and Savannah’s profile on the world stage. The industrial design school has trips planned to South America in the fall.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...