WTOC Investigates: West Savannah residents worried about arena and canal district

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The arena and canal district on Savannah's west side is one of the largest projects the city of Savannah has ever tried to accomplish, but several area neighborhood associations feel their input about it is being ignored.

"We're not against growth," said Bernetta Lanier, president of the Hudson Hill Community Organization. "We're not against the development. We just insist on smart growth and development because we have a vision for the community that we live in. Not being at the table and just accepting the crumbs that fall from the table is no longer an option."

The area and canal district is planned for a lot bordered by Stiles Avenue and West Gwinnett Street that currently houses Savannah Public Works buildings.

Lanier, Rev. Chester A. Ellis, president of Historic Carver Village Neighborhood Association, and Curtis V. Cooper Jr., president of Cloverdale Civic Improvement Organization, say they were part of an arena development committee under a previous city manager. When the committee dissolved, they said they're ideas went with it.

"The arena's in our front door," Ellis said. "To go back and change what you have agreed upon without coming back and talking to [us], you know, just to send a staff member out to say, 'Well, we're looking at this now rather than that.' But we didn't agree on the this. We agreed with the that, and so we want to hold them to the that. Now, the things that we've talked about and the things that we agreed upon have been cast in the trashcan."

Lanier said recent resident meetings with city staff members aren't a substitute for being part of a committee.

"Talking at us and sitting down and negotiating with us as members and stakeholder partners is a totally different thing. So what they have brought to us is a charade, and we won't accept that. And they'll see that when it comes time to vote for the next SPLOST."

Pete Shonka, arena project executive director, said he's still using reports made by that committee to plan for the arena and canal district's development, but right now, his focus is getting the arena itself built, not developing other buildings around it.

"That is my roadmap moving forward so that work has not been thrown out," Shonka said. "It's just most of those recommendations have to do with the development around the arena. I would say maybe 10 to 20 percent are with the arena itself."

One concern from the neighborhood presidents was the possibility of a hotel being built on the property.

"I often wonder since February, when did the city get into the hotel business?" Ellis said. "It seems like we were all on the same until February. Then, all of a sudden, something happened in February, and the neighborhood association is not pleased with what those changes were."

Curtis V. Cooper Jr., president of Cloverdale Civic Improvement Organization, said his residents have basic needs he'd like fulfilled with this project.

"We live in a food desert," Cooper Jr. said. "I have to travel from Cloverdale to Montgomery Crossroads Walmart to get my prescriptions filled. I choose to get my groceries over there because if I drive that far, I need to do everything there. I have to travel across town for those resources, and we expect those resources to come to our community with this type of project. The motels and stuff like that, it's OK, but we need what we need in our community. And this is our community. I think once the city officials and city manager recognize that, Savannah will be the place it needs to be."

Shonka said he's heard those concerns in his meetings. While some of those decisions will be up to private developers, he said the city can carry residents' wants to them, and those residential needs can be addressed with the time comes.

"At the end of the day, the mayor and aldermen are going to make those major decisions about is there a hotel?" Shonka said. "This is city land here. It's owned by the city. Do we want to make a deal with a hotel or a residential development to do some compatible use with the waterworks building? Or anything else on this property for that matter."

Ellis said, "They have money for the arena, but they don't have any money for the canal district. They don't have any monies for the hotel, so do what the voters ask you to do. We voted you in place, so do what the voters ask you to do. Do the project the way the voters would like for you to do it."

Shonka also noted the city wants the development to be compatible with the entertainment happening at and near the arena, like bars and restaurants, but there aren't any specifics planned for the lot, the canal area or the proposed park. He also wants more residential development in the area.

"We need something that's going to be sustainable, so you've got to have residential if you're going to have retail and entertainment," he said.

Right now, there is no designer or construction manager for the project, so he said the conceptual designs created by the architects are strictly conceptual.

"As far as these buildings located here in this location and what they're going to be," Shonka said pointing at a rendering, "no, we don't have any hard plans. It's going to be mixed use we hope. We can get their input and move it forward at that particular time, but right now, we're not seriously planning any of this part of the project. We're really just trying to get that arena building itself constructed. That following development, we haven't even started down that road yet."

Shonka says architects shifted the arena's location to get it built faster, something he said residents said they wanted. Moving the arena away from the historic waterworks building where the city's current public works buildings sit means construction can start before those employees are moved and those buildings are demolished, according to the city. Shonka said that could get the arena built about two years sooner.

Voters approved using SPLOST dollars for the arena in 2005, and even with the several-year collection period, Cooper Jr. said it would be hard to convince his residents to approve another SPLOST to fund the canal district.

"It's going to be a tough pill to swallow for people to go to the polls and support another SPLOST when things don't get done," Cooper Jr. said. "I think it's going to be nearly impossible. I think that most people are now fed up because they're realizing that, 'OK, if I go two miles this way, I can see investment. If I go a mile and a half this way out of my community, I see investment, road improvement, things that our community doesn't have.' It's those types of problems that we've been confronted with all of my 53 years, and so at this time, I really think that it would be nearly impossible for our district to support another SPLOST."

Shonka said the city isn't certain how it will fund the canal district and park yet, but is considering several options, including SPLOST funding or private-public financing.

Regardless of how it's funded, the neighborhood presidents want to ensure they and their ideas are considered as the area is developed.

"In order for it to be effective and in order for it to be the economic engine that it was planned from the beginning to be, the residents need to be at the table," Ellis said. "We need to be able to have those meetings with the arena committee again, let those different ideas come in, so we can develop this thing. We want something that we can be just as proud as our city leaders are. We look forward to private investors. We look forward to government investors, but we also look forward to the community members having a say in what goes on in our community."

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