Concerns grow over the future of the old Coastal Empire Fairground property

Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 3:30 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - January’s excitement over developing the old Coastal Empire Fairground has turned to concern from people living in the area.

Last fall, Savannah City Council voted to hire P3 Venture Group for the development of the property off Meding Street and 62nd.

Former state representative, J. Craig Gordon, was part of that group, and committed to the residents in the surrounding neighborhood to bringing affordable housing for seniors to the site, as well as a police substation, health and wellness facilities and a film production studio that would provide job training and partnerships with local schools.

But back in March, Gordon sent an email to Savannah City Manager Jay Melder detailing a number of concerns about one of the partners in the venture group, concerns that ultimately led him to bow out of the project along with a local design firm.

“Unfortunately the city is content with moving forward with the folks that didn’t want to pay the local design team, and have some entanglements going on back in Arizona,” said Gordon.

Gordon also raised concerns about the P3′s ability to get bond funding for the development.

“I think the last piece of information I heard that was official from the City is that they don’t even think that they will break ground until October of 2023, and that’s assuming that the P3 folks are able to get a tax credit to purchase the land,” said Gordon.

Gordon says he believes the best move for the City moving forward is to put the project back out for bid.

Without the local representation of Gordon in the development group, the president of the 5th District Coalition, which advocates for the neighborhoods of Savannah’s 5th District, says they’re not happy.

“It’s like we’re being ousted, and that’s not going to work for us. It’s simply not, because before the City started thinking about what they wanted, we already knew what we wanted,” said Dr. Pat Harris with the 5th District Coalition.

Dr. Pat Harris, who’s also the president of the Poplar Place Neighborhood Association, says she’s sent several letters to 5th District Alderwoman Dr. Estella Shabazz and City Manager Jay Melder sharing residents’ concerns about the fairground development moving forward.

Harris says the neighborhood association is planning on sharing those publicly at a news conference in the coming weeks.

The city has declined to comment at this time.

Below is Gordon’s full email to Melder:

“Dear City Manager Melder

First let me thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to read this correspondence. I know that all 24 hours in the day, are consumed with pressing city matters and we as Savannahian’s are lucky to have you. I also want to thank and applaud you and your staff for doing a fantastic job since the award of this RFP. As we know, the entire community is watching and more so the fifth district. As a lifelong resident, not just of Savannah but of the neighborhood and fifth district, this development means more to me just money. It’s what I personally label as Savannah’s Hartsfield Jackson Airport moment. Meaning when former Atlanta mayor The Honorable Maynard Jackson, shifted wealth and cut poverty by creating opportunities for all. In that vein, our local development partnership and design team put careful thought into what would go into our response to the City of Savannah’s RFP.

We like all the other portioners had to think of a sustainable concept that would, once built, be able to support itself. Our teams approach also thought about what the major issues city hall wants to put a dent in for its constituents. It came down to: Affordable Housing for our seniors, that it not so dense that it negatively impacts the existing communities of interest. How can we be a part of the city’s crime reduction and community policing? What better way then, a police sub station on site. Lending the ability for all citizens to interact with officers daily not just during emergency calls. Health/Wellness and the eradication of a long-time food dessert. Better then living wage job opportunities, complete with training and pension plans. Our team came up with compulsories that not only addressed these issues and more. But in some cases, such as the first sound stage and police substation. Could be up and running in months. Achieving two very paramount goals; safety enhancement of our beloved residents and the creation of a much-needed work force. As an independent Savannahian, whether you are a house of one or 20. The most important things you want to bring home is the ability to provide food, shelter and healthcare which our exclusive apprenticeship program would do. So, I must say, I’m disappointed and disheartened by some of the revelations that have been brought to my attention.

As well as a change in posture between our 50/50 partnership. To not belittle or be conscribed as a filibuster pronounced by emotion. I’m inserting five of the most serious and concerning issues, with supporting documents. The first unresolvable issue, saved as Exhibit A is an indictment against former P3 founder/CEO Steve Nielson. This was never disclosed to our partnership nor the City of Savannah. Mr. Nielson has been involved in almost all public zooms, interviews and is even listed on all documents as a member of P3 organization. A greater concern is, the bond structure proposed to the city to include the usage of a nonprofit are the same structures laid out in the Arizona indictment. Unresolvable Issues two, saved as Exhibit B is the nonprofit mentioned in all documents has been suspended by the IRS. It has failed to file the required 990′s for 3 consecutive years. My question is how can P3 perform any development activities with a suspended 501c3 status?

Unreasonable Issue three. The is absolutely no willingness to respectfully engage with our dedicated local design team. These hard-working Savannah First firms; for example, Gunn, Meyerholf and Shay have been working for 18 months or more with no compensation. When the majority of the JV partnership wanted to offer institutions providing capital for predevelopment Funding, to include land purchase and design fees, it was met with cold response. Meaning those companies and perhaps even the City of Savannah would not see a dime until September when the proposed bond issuance is set forth. Let us also note, I mentioned to them, I can buy the land cash, without the need of a tax credit. They basically, informed me that an African American Businessman born and raised in the City of Savannah’s, money is no good. The fourth unresolvable Issue, which as attached is Exhibit 3 is a signed LOI that shows all four owners of the local 50% JV. I am the majority shareholder and managing partner and Sylvester Gould is a 10% owner, making our portion the majority.

Exhibit Four is the MOU signed with P3 Arizona, which expired August 15th of 2021, please note clause 7D . No new partnership agreement has been executed, due to the change in the corporate structure of P3 Arizona. The fifth and last for now, as I want to be respectful of your time is lack of response to the host community in which the development rest. I was notified just this past Monday by the President of Filer Park Dr. Betty Jones; and President Dr. Pat Harris that numerous attempts have been made to invite P3 Arizona to meet its fifth district residents. No response, website down, no working P3 emails and no business phone number. Their only resolve and security is that there is a local partner and design team they’ve known for decades. Let us also make note that Mr. Jones has not returned a phone call to me, the managing partner in the 50/50 JV, and at today’s MPC meeting couldn’t recall whom his local design team partners are. This is Gunn, Meyerholf and Shay, who produced the breath-taking renderings and site plans that helped us win the RFP.

If Mr. Jones can’t return a call to myself, the only born and raised local partner in this JV nor acknowledge the names of your hard-working design team, God help the sub-contractors who want to work on this project. City Manager, I know this is a lot. And I’m not asking that you be involved in the house keeping of your selected developers. I am requesting a meeting to discuss the local 50% partnership leading this development and bringing local Georgia verifiable capital to replace the suspect Arizona bonding, I have begun very positive conversations with one Georgia firm in particular who would cherish the opportunity to finance in the form of pre-development and final development funding to this development transaction. This would allow us to close on the land with the City of Savannah, build/rehab space for the police substation, pay our national and local design team and within months get the first sound stage up and running.

As previously stated, thank you for your time, continue the great work and please allow us to continue to make a dream of many a reality.

Best and Blessed Regards,

J Craig Gordon,

Managing Partner, P3JV”

The following is a response David Jones:


We currently do not intend to provide a point-by-point counter to the letter Mr. Gordon wrote.

We believe that the issues being re-raised in the recent letter have already been satisfactorily addressed, and rehashing the same statements without any new substantiation would not be of value.

During our 3/10/22 zoom meeting, the 75% majority ownership of the P3 joint Venture Group (P3/RGM) answered a definitive “yes” to moving ahead with the plan outlined in the City Council approved RFP/BFO.  P3JVG will continue to honor that commitment and work within the guidelines of the procurement laws and DBE ordinances to achieve it.

We look forward to our continued efforts alongside the City of Savannah, the MPC, and numerous local leaders and businesses to reach the successful transformation of the Coastal Empire Fairgrounds.

Have a great weekend.

David T. Jones”

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