Questions over Savannah alderwoman’s opposition to homeless shelter, ties to competing proposal

Updated: Mar. 4, 2021 at 8:39 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - WTOC Investigates has confirmed an alderwoman on the Savannah City Council who has fought against the Salvation Army of Savannah’s efforts to build a new homeless shelter in West Savannah has ties to a proposal for the same land.

Alderwoman Bernetta Lanier founded Ivory Bay Community Development Corporation (CDC) in 2005. Last week, a proposal for a development at 2305 Augusta Avenue was submitted to the Housing Authority of Savannah with Ivory Bay CDC listed as a partner. Two Savannah public officials - one on the Savannah City Council - expressed concern to WTOC about a potential conflict of interest regarding Alderwoman Lanier.

WTOC Investigates spent this past week looking into the matter. Our team was able to get in touch with Richmond Ferguson, the developer who submitted the eight-page proposal to the housing authority on February 24.

“Believe it or not, it only took us a week to draw this up,” Ferguson said.

Dubbed the “Weeping Time Plaza,” it includes a village market, a four-story hotel, and a three-story residential building. Ferguson, a Savannah native, said he feels the project would bring life to an area in desperate need of some help. But a paragraph on page six of the proposal states, “Ivory Bay Community Development Corporation will oversee the development and construction of the plaza.”

The Georgia Secretary of State’s web site shows Alderwoman Lanier as Ivory Bay’s registered agent. Her profile on the city’s web site also said she “presently serves as President and CEO” of the 501-c (3) organization.

WTOC reached-out to Lanier eight times over three days about this development over call, text and email. Lanier has not responded to our requests for comment.

We asked Ferguson about Lanier’s involvement with his proposal.

“She had no idea,” Ferguson said.

We asked Ferguson if Lanier was aware now that her CDC is listed on an official proposal. He said she is aware.

“Oh, she was happy about it,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said Ivory Bay would get paid to partner with them if his proposal passed. He said they would coordinate vendors and help lay the groundwork for the development phase.

The council member that expressed concern to WTOC said Lanier knew about this proposal before it was submitted in February. They provided us with emails from January that showed Lanier forwarded a draft of Ferguson’s proposal to the entire city council and expressed support for it.

“The decisions before us are too critical to clumsily forge ahead without considering this different option,” Lanier said.

The draft did not include anything about Ivory Bay. Ivory Bay’s name was later added. WTOC Investigates also found Lanier has since posted her support for the proposed project on her public Facebook page, despite it listing her CDC as a partner.

Ferguson said he does not see anything wrong with Lanier’s potential involvement in his project.

“I mean, a lot of people do that,” Ferguson said. “Nobody else worries about that. They’re on this council, that council. They put people on the planning board, the board of appeals, they get favorable rulings. I don’t know why there’s such an issue with her,” Ferguson added.

WTOC has been in contact with Alderwoman Lanier since November about her strong opposition to the Salvation Army’s proposal to build a homeless shelter off Augusta Avenue. The site used to be home to the old Bartow Apartments, and is positioned near the site of the historic Weeping Time slave auction.

The Salvation Army entered an agreement in 2018 to buy the land from the housing department, which had to be approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Now, the Salvation Army just needs a special use permit from the city council to complete the transaction. The city council first looked at the issue late last year. Here’s some of what Lanier told WTOC.

“This community is so vulnerable, something like a homeless shelter would break this community,” Lanier said. “And, with me being the representative living five blocks away, certainly I’m going to work with different stakeholders and different economic drivers in order to bring development to this area.”

The city’s code of ethics states that, “public office not be used for personal gain” and that the public should “have confidence in the integrity of its government.” It also states, in part... “an elected official of the city of Savannah who has an interest that he/she has reason to believe may be affected by his/her official actions.... shall disclose the precise nature of such interest... and abstain from discussion and voting.”

WTOC reached out to Ivory Bay, and requested to speak to Lanier. The person who answered said they would work to get us in touch with her before our Thursday afternoon deadline. We have not heard back.

WTOC also reached out to the mayor, city attorney and city manager. All declined to comment.

Major Paul Egan with the Salvation Army of Savannah issued a statement to WTOC.

“The information you have shared with me helps me understand the motives of those who have led the opposition to our project which is something that has always been a mystery to me,” Egan said. “Our only purpose is to help our neighbors in Savannah that need their community’s support the most.”

WTOC will continue to follow any developments in this story. The council is set to discuss the Salvation Army’s request for a special use permit at its meeting on Thursday, March 11.

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