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Challenge 2015: Shaundra McKeithen, District 5

OF ALL Savannah’s aldermanic races, District 5 is shaping up to be the most, well, manic.

At a debate hosted by the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Right Museum Oct. 2, incumbent Estella Shabazz lobbed accusations of political partisanship at challenger Shaundra McKeithen, and moderators had a difficulty keeping the event on track.

Afterwards, alleges McKeithen, Shabazz’s husband, County Commissioner Yusuf Shabazz, flashed a gun inside his jacket at her. She filed a complaint with SCMPD last Friday and says she won’t participate in any more political events without proper security for fear for her safety.

A strategic planner, consultant and certified grant writer, McKeithen has worked in development for the City of Savannah, Chatham County and Gwinnett County.

Like many 2015 challengers, this is her first foray into politics but she attests that her skills can help alleviate District 5’s high crime and poverty rates as well as unite its far-flung southwestern neighborhoods.

So, first thing first, what went down at the forum?

Oh gosh, It was a horrible attack by Estella Shabazz. She only wanted to debate on me, she didn’t want to debate the issues of the 5th district. I didn’t feed into her negativity, and everyone there knows what happened.

Some of the attacks were about some things I put on Facebook, like when I was upset that my son had to dodge bullets during his football practice.

Any good mother would be upset that their 10 year-old is in harm’s way! So I was upset when I posted that this is the state that our leadership has gotten us into.

What is happening with the complaint against Mr. Shabazz ?

Well. a lot of the people don’t want to speak up. We almost have the code of the streets going on right now in the middle of politics, where we’re supposed to have more astute and educated people that are participating in this exchange. Many of them will not come forward and say what they saw.

There’s a video but the witness is refusing to give it over to police so they can further investigate. So we’ve hit a stone wall.

But I’m still going to protect myself. I have a meeting with one of the ladies from Safe Shelter who is going to help me file a stalking protection order.

I’m more passionate than ever that we need change. We don’t need people trying to hijack the political process. This is a democratic process and voters don’t want to hear how you personally feel about another candidate.

They want to know, “What are you going to do to improve the living conditions, the crime, the poverty, the drainage issues in the 5th district?”

What are you going to do?

Well, we have to unify the 5th district first. There are so many neighborhoods that are not being represented. The only ones that are being adequately served are Feiler Park, Tatemville, Liberty City and maybe Hampstead, but anything south of Hunter Army Airfield is not being serviced.

People don’t realize that neighborhoods in the southwest like Bradley Point have the same issues that the inner city has—maybe the poverty rate isn’t as high, but they have crime, they have drainage problems, they need parks and community centers for their kids, too.

When you take office, you make a commitment to serve everybody, not just the people who vote for you. Many of the people living over there don’t even know who their representative is.

Every neighborhood needs an association with a viable Facebook page and website so that people who don’t come to meetings can still be engaged. In my first 90 days in office, that’s what I would work on.

Then, the job of the elected presidents of those associations would be to bring me information and act as my roundtable.

They will be the people I took to when we’re looking at SPLOST dollars. We’re not just going to spend money in one place. We need to make spending fair.

Speaking of spending, any thoughts on the city’s recent acquisition of the fairgrounds in the 5th district? Is that project a good investment?

Well, I haven’t heard about it being a project. As of now, it’s just a purchase. I have not seen any plans for what made it necessary to buy the fairgrounds.

Nobody said, “We want to build a multipurpose complex or something and let’s find some land.” They just woke up one morning and had a meeting and said, “Hey, we should buy the fairgrounds.”

Who has done an impact study? Why are we making a 3 million dollar purchase?

They’re saying they’re going to build affordable housing, but who knows? Now we have a bunch of people in Feiler Park and Tatemville who don’t know how they’re going to be affected.

What if a developer comes in? What’s to stop someone from building half million dollar homes and tax these people right out of the area where they’ve invested their lives? Actually, I think that’s the reason they actually bought it.

Do you have any other ideas for economic development?

I started my career in economic development with the City of Savannah back in 1999. I worked on the plan to revitalize MLK Blvd. and Montgomery Street. I worked on a plan to revitalize Waters Avenue, but it was never implemented.

Back then, [former city manager] Michael Brown and Mayor Johnson and Mayor Adams worked tirelessly with other community organizations and government agencies and the school board to come up with concise solutions. Many of those plans have not been carried out.

We’ve had so many plans. We need to dust those off. We spent man hours, consulting money, design money. For those to just to be sitting on someone’s desk is a waste. If we had stuck to those plans, we’d be a lot further along.

For now, our non-profits have to be supported; they’re paramount. We need to give them all the support we can in order for them to be viable and sustainable.

Most non-profits start up with a budget of kind of nothing. They can’t afford to have a grant writer on staff. They can’t afford a strategic plan drawn up.

But the City of Savannah has access to those talents, so I would expand the community development office to include a grants management department that would be responsible for meeting with nonprofits and help write grants, which would be administrated through the city.

It wouldn’t cost a dime in extra salaries, because when an organization is awarded federal or state money and even from foundations, it provides 20 percent towards administration throughout the grant cycle.

So if you have a $100K grant, $20K would just go back to the city. So we can have certified grant writers whose only job is to work with local non-profits. After an organization grew its budget, the city could pull back and they could hire their own people.

You know where this has worked? Gwinnett County. It’s the richest county in the state! I was over grants and contracts there, and between my budget and the Dept. of Education, those two departments netted a hundred million dollars a year. A year!

That money went to the city, and all we had to do is disseminate it. We had a grant administrator whose job it was to make sure it was being spent the way it was supposed to.

We could have that. This is the solution.

Of course we would evaluate every program that we are currently funding also. Step Up Savannah needs to step down the poverty rate or no more funding. No more of these feel good bridges to nowhere type investments. We need to invest in programs that really work.

I’ve also already started working on a business coalition for this district. We’ll do a survey to find out what are the barriers to business development or opening up a business. What do you need to stay here? Do you need streetscape? What incentives do we need? Can there be a tax break for opening a business in one of these areas?

My goal is for people to live, play shop and work in their district. There are all of those new developments and apartments in the southwest of area, out by 204 and I-95. We need to get those Gateway shops functioning again.

Why don’t we have more restaurants here or things for children to do in this district? The only things that we have are package shops, mechanics and predatory lending places.

Has there been anything positive that has come out of last week’s incident?

I was an unknown before this. Everything I’ve done for this city has been behind the scenes. That’s been Estella’s whole platform: “Y’all don’t know her, but you know me.”

That’s even more reason that people should vote for me, because she has not lived up to her promises to the 5th district.

Where is the economic development? Where is the better quality of life?

I’m not going to back down. I’m not running for any other reason to make this a better place to live.