Tomochichi Federal Building and US Courthouse
Tomochichi Federal Building and US Courthouse

PROPERTY MATTERS: Court memo raises concerns about funding for federal building’s renovation

Updated September 20, 2023 at 11:14 a.m.

Employees that work in downtown Savannah’s Tomochichi Federal Building and US Courthouse, including a federal judge, recently informed city officials of their concerns about a funding shortfall they said threatens to “derail” the downtown building’s renovation following two structural incidents this year.

While an additional $18.1 million is expected to be allocated from other projects as a result of the deficit, an additional $25 million would still be needed to complete the Savannah building’s renovation being overseen by the General Services Administration, according to a memo US Southern District Court of Georgia Judge R. Stan Baker emailed to City Attorney Bates Lovett on Aug. 24. 

“I hope this proves helpful in any discussions you may have regarding the project,” Baker’s email said.

The unsigned memo was drafted as a collaborative effort by multiple individuals from the court in response to a request for information from the city regarding the court’s perspective on the background and status of the project, according to the district’s clerk of court, John Triplett.

click to enlarge PROPERTY MATTERS: Court memo raises concerns about funding for federal building’s renovation
The Tomochichi Federal Building and US Courthouse renovation project was halted on April 11 following a partial collapse of the third floor in one section of the historic building. Eric Curl/Aug. 29, 2023

The memo states that from a scheduling perspective, the GSA is forecasting the project will be completed by December 2025, barring any further unforeseen complications. However, from a budgeting perspective, the project has already undergone multiple rounds of extensive value engineering and there are no more aspects of the project to cut, according to the memo.

“This is an iconic building that serves a vital need, and it cannot be abandoned mid-project,” the memo states. “Thus, it is incumbent upon everyone involved to ensure that the endeavor is fully supported financially so that it can continue to serve the greater Savannah community for years to come.”

The city was involved in the request for the memo due to the two incidents at the site this year, according to a statement issued by a city spokesperson on Sept. 1.

“We are looking to stay informed and aware of anything we can do to help this important renovation be successful, while limiting disruptions to the residents and businesses around Wright Square,” the city’s statement said. “We look forward to the safe completion of this project and the historic building’s return to active life in the Savannah community.”

The renovation project is meant to modernize the historic building  to meet the U.S. judiciary’s current and long-term needs for security, accessibility and operational efficiency, according to the GSA. Construction, which began in September 2021, has been on hold since April 11 following a partial collapse of the third floor in one section of the courthouse. The collapse came about two months after a monitoring system recorded a 2-millimeter shift in a portion of the building, which resulted in the evacuation of workers and surrounding downtown businesses until stabilization efforts allowed for their return the next day, according to the memo.

A spokesperson’s statement on Aug. 31 said that the GSA “has a plan for funding repairs and the overall project, with significant funding secured in June” and officials look “forward to completing this important project.”

“GSA is working with the general contractor on the revised project schedule, and we will have more information to share once recovery efforts are expected to be complete in October 2023,” the statement said.

The GSA’s statement did not address specific questions sent on Aug. 28 regarding the funding claims made in the memo. Those questions sought to confirm the additional $18.1 million expected to be allocated from other projects and what those projects are, and whether an additional $25 million would still be needed to complete construction. Triplett also declined to provide more specific information about the funding, referring inquiries to the GSA.

Michael Higgins, who owns the adjacent Wright Square Bistro, said the building’s renovation has been disruptive to many small businesses such as his. After GSA officials initially represented it to be a 1-2 year project, they then  made assurances construction would be completed by next year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, the event’s 200th anniversary, Higgins said.

“We understand things happen, as in the partial collapse,” Higgins said via email on Sept. 3. “But it has been very difficult getting consistent answers from GSA or the contractors.”

However, Downtown Neighborhood Association President David McDonald said on Aug. 29 that he was confident the project would be fully funded after recently meeting with GSA officials.

“The funding is there,” McDonald said. “They’re not going to stop this project three quarters in due to a lack of funding.”

Published September 19, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

Eric Curl

Connect Savannah Freelance Correspondent I Eric Curl is probably reading building permits, sales records and meeting agendas. He writes Property Matters to share what he finds. You can find the column, along with other stories, cartoons and quizzes about local matters at
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