Meet 20 local movers, shakers and change-makers who made a real impact on the region in 2023 — and are creating a brighter Savannah for the next generation.
Written by ANDREA GOTO, BRIENNE WALSH, COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY & SAM WORLEY
Photography by MICHAEL SCHALK
A New Crew
JULIE FORD MUSSELMAN
Executive Director, Savannah’s Waterfront and the Board
(Left to right):
Ansley Williams, CEO, Live Oak Restaurant Group and President of Savannah’s Waterfront
Simon Pettigrew, Managing Director, JW Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside District
Dale Parker, Owner, J. Parker Ltd.
Joseph Rosa, General Manager, River Street Inn
Chelsea Williams, Director of Business Development, Live Oak Restaurant Group
Mickey Minick, Executive Sales Director, Kelly Tours
Rhett Strickland, Owner, Savannah’s Candy Kitchen
Jonathan Claughton, President & CEO, River Street Riverboat Company
Geoffrey Repella, General Manager, Byrd Cookie Company – River Street
Susan Powers, Innkeeper, Olde Harbour Inn & East Bay Inn
Michael Owens, President & CEO, Tourism Leadership Council
WHEN JULIE MUSSELMAN JOINED Savannah’s Waterfront as the executive director in 2019, the nonprofit was already looking to make some changes. Since 1973, the organization has promoted and protected the success of the restaurants, retail shops, tours and hotels along River Street, Factors Walk, Bay Street and Hutchinson Island. Yet, in recent years, much of the organization’s focus and resources went to producing monthly festivals.
Then, the pandemic halted the Waterfront’s 2020 St. Patrick’s Day festivities. With public gatherings on pause, Musselman and her board turned their focus to a different project that had been on the back burner: forming Chatham County’s first and only Community Improvement District (CID).
In Georgia, a CID is a mechanism in which property owners in a defined geographic area elect to pay an additional assessment on their real property. The revenue goes directly back into the district to provide enhanced services, such as street maintenance or recreation areas, to supplement existing municipal services and benefit the properties within its boundaries.
“This is not about the city not doing a good job. This is about only having so many resources to go around,” Musselman says.
She credits Chelsea Williams of Live Oak Restaurant Group — the family behind Spanky’s Pizza Galley & Saloon, Tubby’s Seafood, Fiddler’s Crab House & Oyster Bar and more — for her research and bringing forth the idea to form a CID.
“We can make the waterfront safer, cleaner, more well-lit and more inviting to everyone to come and enjoy.”
– Julie Musselman
Making it happen was easier said than done. Forming a CID requires the agreement of 51% of the commercial property owners representing at least 75% of the taxable value of the commercial property located within the proposed boundaries.
“We met with as many people as we could. Chelsea’s family has been down on the water so long that they know everybody,” says Musselman. “Every property owner’s voice is important.”
They expanded their conversations beyond Savannah, too — gaining insights from national leaders like the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and directors of CIDs in metro Atlanta, where the majority are. They also hired Atlanta-based CID experts, Leithead Consulting, to help guide the process.
Signing Richard Kessler was a turning point. Kessler’s Plant Riverside District already had brand-new lights, sidewalks, trash cans and landscapes, so what’s the benefit of a CID to him? “A long-term environment of business success here,” answers Musselman. “No property is an island.”
Within 48 hours, Musselman had six more hotels. Once they had the critical mass, it would take another nine weeks for the Chatham County Tax Commissioner to grant certification before getting on the Savannah City Council’s agenda.
In June 2023, the City Council officially passed a resolution to create Savannah’s Waterfront Community Improvement District (SWCID) — including more than 80 commercial properties stretching from Plant Riverside District on the west to Marriott Savannah Riverfront on the east — for six years. Then, members can vote on an extension for another six years.
Now, Musselman is focused on setting the foundation for what’s ahead: establishing a volunteer board of directors with appointments by both the city and the members, setting the tax rate, going after additional funding through state grants and determining which programs and services the CID wants to undertake first.
“We can make the waterfront safer, cleaner, more well-lit and more inviting to everyone to come and enjoy,” Musselman says. There could be short-term wins — like beautification projects — and longer-term goals, like adding sidewalks and dock facilities.
“I want a power washer so bad,” she says with a laugh. “I want to power wash from one end of the street to the other, and the next Sunday morning, I want to start back over.”
She guarantees one thing that won’t change: the historical charm of the area. “We definitely are not going to pave over the cobblestones,” she notes.
— Colleen Ann McNally
Step by Step
Board president of Friends of Tide to Town and physical activity program manager for Healthy Savannah
EVERY GREAT JOURNEY starts with a few first steps, as everyone knows. In the case of Tide to Town, those first steps follow the Truman Linear Park Trail — a stretch of trail between Lake Mayer and DeRenne Avenue completed in 2020 that marks the initial three miles of a walking and biking path that will someday encircle Savannah. When it’s finished, the Tide to Town system will comprise some 30 miles of paved trails, protected from vehicle traffic and accessible to all.
One of the key people behind the path is Armand Turner, board president of Friends of Tide to Town. The project, Turner explains, isn’t only about recreation. It’s just as much about equity and livability — about giving residents of underserved neighborhoods a healthy way to get around and about promoting safety in a city and state where auto-pedestrian accidents are common.
“It also connects communities,” Turner says. ”It brings us together.”
Turner, an Indiana native, was brought to Savannah to serve as the physical activity program manager for the Healthy Savannah initiative, launched in 2007 by Mayor Otis Johnson. The funding that specifically brought Turner here is through the CDC’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grant, awarded in 2018 and co-administered with the YMCA of Coastal Georgia.
“[Tide to Town] also connects communities. It brings us together.”
In recent years, Healthy Savannah has launched programs that expand access to nutritious foods, promote breastfeeding, encourage physical activity in kids and adults — and much more. In 2022, Healthy Savannah received the CDC’s Lark Award, which honors “extraordinary individuals, organizations, or community coalitions associated with the REACH program.”
More encouraging news is that the grant was recently renewed, which means Turner will be working for our community for at least another five years. “We’re extremely excited about being able to continue this work and really seeing more change here in Savannah and Chatham County,” he says.
The next step for the Tide to Town trail? Turner says they hope to break ground on the next phase — DeRenne Avenue to Daffin Park — late this year or early 2024.
— Sam Worley
Editor in Chief, The Current
EVEN WITH A CURSORY GLANCE, readers can immediately sense that The Current, an independent digital newsroom, is doing something different. Without advertising or paywalls, the donor-driven news source delivers nonpartisan, data-based, investigative journalism at the local level.
“We had an idea of how we wanted to build a new and different newsroom that was dedicated to accountability and in-depth journalism as a way to build and regain trust,” says Margaret Coker, The Current editor in chief, who, along with managing editor Susan Catron, one of Georgia’s most experienced newspaper women, built the innovative newsroom.
Coker, a prize-winning investigative journalist who worked at Cox Newspapers, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, knew it was important to make the news local — “Instead of having national reporters telling us what Coastal Georgia needed,” she adds — and to make the information available at no cost.
“With all the inequalities in Georgia, having access to high-quality information is something we can erase right away. And we’ve done that,” says Coker. “Everyone deserves facts and knowledge that they can use to become better citizens.”
The proof of concept is that in a news market saturated with hot takes, celebrity gossip and partisan op-eds, people seem to be craving data-driven facts and knowledge. Coker points to the fact that The Current’s readership has grown to an average of 45,000. An entire third of their readers are under the age of 30, and over half of their readers are under the age of 40. “It’s like we’re building this whole new movement within the younger generation — people who have never grown up with media loyalties.”
“With all the inequalities in Georgia, having access to high-quality information is something we can erase right away. And we’ve done that. Everyone deserves facts and knowledge that they can use to become better citizens.”
– Margaret Coker
Coker and her husband purchased a home in Savannah in 2010 with the intention of eventually relocating full-time. Nearly 10 years later, she got the break she was looking for. A book deal allowed Coker to step back and finally make Savannah a permanent home.
She completed the manuscript for “The Spymaster of Baghdad” (HarperCollins), a nonfiction book on Iraqi patriotism in the battle against ISIS, at the beginning of 2020, but COVID pushed the publication to 2021. “That’s when I had 18 months to figure out what am I going to do with my life and that’s how we started the conversation to start The Current,” she says.
That conversation began with her longtime friend and The Grey co-owner Johno Morisano, who was also working on a book at the time. Morisano was still reeling from the tragic loss of The Grey’s general manager Scott Waldrup, who was killed by a car that crashed following a shooting in downtown Savannah on July 4, 2017.
“Johno wanted to be much more activated in helping to drive a change — to improve outcomes and improve lives in Savannah,” says Coker. “And I told him that better journalism in Savannah would accomplish the things he wanted to accomplish, which is to cultivate and empower people to be civically engaged.”
Morisano had already established the nonprofit Grey Matters Project, and he used it to launch The Current with Coker and Catron at the helm. “We had talent, we had a grant and we had angel investors as donors,” says Coker. The team immediately began moving the needle of nonprofit news; The Current was declared one of Georgia’s most trusted political news sources by the Poynter Institute, the leading journalism industry organization, and a 2022 impact report demonstrates the specific ways their reporting has made a difference for Coastal Georgians.
As that impact grows, so too does Coker’s hope for the future of Coastal Georgia and the people who call it home. “We’re a nation that is built on an informed citizenry; we are a republic,” she says. “We need to have better facts in order to be empowered to fill this constitutional right of going to vote and getting engaged in our own communities.”
— Andrea Goto
The Show Goes On
Executive Director, Tybee Post Theater
EVAN GOETZ BECAME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of the Tybee Post Theater in April 2021 — that is, amid a century-defining pandemic that brought live entertainment to a standstill.
An arts professional and Savannah College of Art and Design grad, the South Carolina native approached his first big challenge carefully, surveying patrons to gauge support for reopening in an uneasy time. There was plenty. “And we’ve been rocking and rolling ever since,” he says.
Today the venue offers programming so confidently eclectic that you’d think it had been around forever: a screening of “The Exorcist,” concert tributes to Linda Ronstadt and John Prine, an acting workshop, ballet. But the Tybee Post is something of a newcomer.
“How do we get beyond our four walls — not only with our programming, but with our connections to people? Those four walls include the building itself but also Tybee Island. How do we go across the bridge and reach people in Savannah and further?”
– Evan Goetz
Built in 1930 to entertain soldiers stationed at Fort Screven with films, the theater closed in the 1960s. By 1999 the languishing structure was set to be demolished — saved only by the Tybee Island Historical Society, which purchased the building in 2001. After extensive fundraising by the Friends of the Tybee Theater, the refurbished building reopened in 2015.
If its first few years back were about finding its footing, the post-pandemic theater is poised for growth, and Goetz is clear about the challenges. “How do we get beyond our four walls — not only with our programming, but with our connections to people?” Goetz says. “Those four walls include the building itself but also Tybee Island. How do we go across the bridge and reach people in Savannah and further?”
Aside from the 150-plus events he and his staff book annually, Goetz launched the Tybee Post Music Festival in 2022. Georgia legends the Indigo Girls headlined the sold-out inaugural event; this year, ’90s faves Everclear and the Spin Doctors top the bill. Slated for Nov. 4 at the Hotel Tybee, the event is an obvious way to push beyond the four walls. But it’s also a “way to showcase who we are as an organization,” Goetz says, underscoring the theater’s mission: “The fun begins here.”
“Which is a little cheesy,” he adds, “but we truly try to make it a fun atmosphere.”
— Sam Worley
TATIANA CABRAL SMITH
Founder of Más Paz Counseling and jewelry artist
TATIANA CABRAL SMITH runs a successful counseling practice but, off the clock, she’s kind of an introvert — so she takes particular care to recharge before heading back to work. Part of that is a deliberate lunch break. “I don’t talk to anybody. I just eat in silence,” she says with a laugh.
But a larger part of her recharge lies in jewelry design — elegant, minimalist pieces that she crafts and sells at Superbloom in the Starland District and on her website (cabraljewelry.com). “It really is the best release for me,” she says. “To be able to use my hands and create something is really satisfying.”
When she is cultivating patients, though, Cabral Smith focuses on communities whose needs aren’t always met by the mental health profession. In 2020 she started Más Paz Counseling after observing a lack of Spanish-speaking therapists in Savannah. Más Paz, which means “more peace,” also focuses on the specific needs of LGBTQ+ people, and Black, indigenous and other people of color.
“I just think that we’re here to help each other. So, I want to make things better.”
– Tatiana Cabral Smith
“Just for people to have therapists who identify like they do, or look like them, or similar — I think that’s really powerful,” Cabral Smith says. “I wanted people to feel safe and at peace when they saw their therapist and not like they’re going to be shamed.”
Her practice has grown quickly; this fall, Cabral Smith and two counselors who’ve joined her practice — Camille Ridgley and Arty Allen — were preparing to move out of a subleased office into their own space in the Thomas Square District.
A first-generation immigrant, Cabral Smith was born in the Bronx into a Dominican and Puerto Rican family, then moved to Florida as a teen. (She ended up in Savannah in 2010 — for love she says.) Her family showed her the importance of caring for her community. Her aunt was a social worker; her mother was, as she recalls, “just helping people in her free time, all the time — immigration papers, transportation, whatever she could do.”
Cabral Smith brings a social justice spirit even to her jewelry making, donating some proceeds to people-helping causes and organizations — like the South Georgia advocacy group Migrant Equity Southeast, whose board she also chairs.
“I just think that we’re here to help each other. So, I want to make things better,” she says.
— Sam Worley
Partner at Sterling Seacrest Pritchard and 2023 Campaign Chair for the United Way of the Coastal Empire
CINDY ROBINETT IS OFTEN REMINDED of the Scripture: “to whom much is given, much will be required.” She is a mother of three and a businesswoman with over 30 years of experience in the insurance industry, most recently as a partner and founding member at Sterling Seacrest Pritchard. Robinett doesn’t take her success for granted, and she pays it forward. “Throughout my career, I’ve been involved with charities,” she says. “You’ve got to make room for it.”
This past year, Robinett, a Savannah native who graduated in 1989 from the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, served as the campaign chair for the United Way of the Coastal Empire. Under her leadership, the organization raised $10.8 million, which reflects an 8% increase in workplace and individual giving over the past year. Notably, three corporate donors — Gulfstream Aerospace, Georgia Ports Authority and Colonial Group, Inc. — teamed up with employees for the first time in the organization’s 85-year history to donate over half a million dollars each.
“United Way doesn’t only lift people up, it also helps them find financial security.”
– Cindy Robinett
For Robinett, who notes that she worked with a large team, pitching United Way was easy. “Their mission is to improve lives,” she says. “What better organization to serve than one that wants to improve lives in your community?”
The organization, which partners with over 60 local nonprofits, has been focused on working with local businesses to provide training and education to employees. It also aims to provide support for people on the brink of homelessness and affordable childcare to working parents, among many other worthy causes. “United Way doesn’t only lift people up, it also helps them find financial security,” Robinett says.
Robinett contends that her job as campaign chair was easy. “Our community is so generous,” she says.
It’s not only to the United Way that Robinett devotes her time — she also serves on the board of trustees at Savannah Christian Preparatory Academy, the alumni board of directors at the Terry College of Business and the board at Isle of Hope Methodist Church.
Giving back is made simpler by the fact that she loves the city where she was born and where she returned when it was time to raise her own kids. “Savannah has the best of everything,” she says. “It has great people, great living and it’s good for business.” The only negative, she says, are the sand gnats. Even still, “I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” she adds.
— Brienne Walsh
Getting It Done
TELFAIR CHILDREN’S ART MUSEUM
RANA EDGAR, Telfair Museums Director of Institutional Advancement
JACKIE RABINOWITZ, Philanthropist
CYNTHIA WILLETT, Philanthropist
No one knows better than community philanthropists Jackie Rabinowitz and Cynthia Willett that together we can create great things. So, when the longtime supporters of Telfair Museums saw an opportunity to serve the children of Savannah through a rebuild — and reimagination — of the children’s art museum in the Jepson Center for the Arts, they got to work.
After partnering with local design firm Fren Inc. to build the Memorial Health Dwaine and Cynthia Willett Children’s Hospital of Savannah and its Sunshine Park and Healing Garden, the power pair knew what the creative group could bring to Telfair’s table. They set up an initial meeting with the key players in December of 2021, and by May of 2022, Telfair’s board voted to move forward with the new construction. An astounding 14 months and $2.3 million later, Telfair Children’s Art Museum (CAM) opened its doors.
“As someone who fundraises, you rarely open something and say it’s paid for,” says Rana Edgar, Telfair Museums director of institutional advancement. “But we were able to do that with this project. The day that it opened, we were fully funded.”
But that’s the CliffsNotes version of the story. Behind the scenes, Rabinowitz, Willett and the Telfair team were working fast and furiously to gather support and build partnerships in order to bring their passion project to life.
“Jackie and Cynthia have been committed to Telfair for a very long time, and, above and beyond that, their passion really is the children in our community,” Edgar says. “It was an opportunity for them to bring together two things they really care about, which is the museum and the youth in our community.”
She acknowledges that because this was a space for children and so much research went into the design to ensure that it served this population in the most effective, innovative and interesting way possible, it was a fairly easy sell to donors and corporate partners. “Knowing children could come and have a sense of wonder and that they could see art in a new way, and learn about it in a new way — that was really important to everyone who participated in the campaign,” Edgar says. “They knew this would make such an impact on the kids in our community.”
Rabinowitz and Willett not only had the financial backing of a number of longtime Telfair private and corporate donors, but they were able to expand that base through new partnerships with Chick-fil-A Foundation, Coca-Cola, Colonial Group, Georgia Ports Authority, Georgia Power Foundation, Great Dane, Memorial Health, PNC Foundation and The Johanna Anderson Trueblood Foundation, in addition to many first-time private donors.
“These new donors came on board because of the fact that this has to do with children and education and giving them something to do that is a segue into learning more about the arts,” Willett says.
“Knowing children could come and have a sense of wonder and that they could see art in a new way, and learn about it in a new way — that was really important to everyone who participated in the campaign.”
– Rana Edgar
She also highlights the fact that CAM’s high-tech interface allows it to evolve to meet the developing needs of the museum and the children it serves. “This is such a spectacular thing for the children, because it has a digital aspect,” Willett says. “And it’s ever-changing — it’s something that can constantly grow with the museum and the art in the museum.”
This value can’t be overstated. “The first museum that children experience will shape their creativity, even if they don’t go into an art field. It makes an impact on them,” Edgar says. “So, for us being that museum for this community and having that children’s space is something that’s very important to us.”
Rabinowitz emphasizes that CAM is the only children’s art museum in the Lowcountry and Coastal Empire. “Why is that so important?” she asks. “Because many of our families in this area are unable to put their kids on a plane to visit a museum. This is their only museum, and so it was very important to us to be able to provide education for them. And that’s one of the reasons why Cynthia and I felt so strongly about this project. It’s a legacy that will live on.”
It’s a legacy that, without a doubt, Rabinowitz and Willett have put into motion. “We could not have done this project without the two of them,” Edgar says. “I am forever grateful to them, and I think the community should be grateful for what they have brought to us — their dedication to making sure that children in our community have such a wonderful place to go and learn. I think it sets a really great example for all of us and what we can accomplish as well.”
— Andrea Goto