Reviving Jekyll

Many of the storied island’s manmade assets are in decline. There’s little disagreement that something needs to be done. But the size and scope of the redevelopment plan are still being debated.
Grand history: The Jekyll Island Club|!!| built as a retreat for winter-weary northerners|!!| dates from the 1880s

When the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) announced last year that it had formed a partnership with Linger Longer Commun-ities, a Georgia resort developer, to revitalize the island’s aging infrastructure and tourist attractions, a cacophony of protests arose.

From public meetings to internet blogs, the voices of opposition to the idea became increasingly louder, even leading to attempts in the legislature to stop or curtail the plans. There were fears the island’s tranquil landscape would become lined with high-rise beachfront hotels a la Miami, and that the affordable state park would once again become a playground for the rich.

Curtailing legislation failed to pass during the recent session, and the developer voluntarily scaled back a controversial part of its plan; but the debate continues. Development proponents and opponents both remain somewhat wary.

“What complicated the matter a little bit is that the folks who were very opposed to change carried on a public campaign that included what we considered to be a lot of misinformation,” says Eric Garvey, the JIA’s senior director of marketing. “And that brought a lot of people who may have had a lot of concern and care into the fold because they were hearing things that just weren’t true.”

What is true, and difficult to argue, say JIA officials – and even opponents of the new development plan – is that the island’s manmade assets are in decline. “Our golf courses were built between 1927 and 1973, and only one of those has been redone since then,” says John Hunter, director of the Jekyll Island Museum.

“So you’ve got 30-, 40-, 50-year-old drainage and sprinkler systems on them. The bike paths are 25 years old; our fishing pier is from the late 1960s; our water system was built in the 1950s. All that requires long-term care, maintenance, investment and upgrades.”

That’s true, says one Jekyll Island resident who opposes the revitalization plan. David Egan began visiting Jekyll in 1983 and purchased a home there 10 years ago. “As longtime visitors, we’d been saying all along that somebody needs to do something with the hotel situation,” says Egan, a retired college professor from upstate New York. “Those places had deteriorated, and we even walked out of two of them they were so bad. Then all of a sudden we see this plan that came out that looked like somebody was going to turn this place into an upscale resort instead of an improved state park.”

Egan became a part of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island State Park, a group that fought the redevelopment plan. What Egan and his group wanted was an upgrade on the beachfront hotels, improved amenities and reasonable prices all around.

“What we’re afraid of, and this is what this beachfront project looks like, is if you stuff 400-something beachfront condos along the park’s main public beach, and then you stick in a couple of upscale hotels, and so forth, the state public park concept and the whole feel and grace of Jekyll disappears,” he says.

Others objecting to the redevelopment project say the JIA’s planning process was either not open enough to public input or did not give serious consideration to public comments. “We’re more concerned about the process than forcing any particular outcome,” says David Kyler, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, a vocal development opposition group. “What we want to see is just an open, transparent public participatory process for the planning the future of the island.”

And, says Kyler, that hasn’t happened. “Regarding legal action, if the JIA persists in being unwilling to open up a legitimate participatory planning process, we and others are investigating ways of challenging their administrative process … .”

But there are residents of the island who believe the development plan is the inevitable product of the wear of time and nature on Jekyll’s tourist attractions and lodging options.

“I think they have no choice,” says Jim Sherry, a semi-retired ophthalmologist from Wisconsin who spends six months of the year at his Jekyll Island home. “Do we want to have all these other people on our little island? Well, no. I’d love to keep it to myself. That would be wonderful. But we’ve lost 10 feet of beach [to erosion] in nine years since I’ve owned this house.

“All you have to do is just drive around the island and look at how things have deteriorated. The buildings are getting old and [the Authority] needs money and they just don’t have it. The condition of the golf courses is just terrible. I’ve looked at the plan. It’s all in the numbers. You put $350 million, or whatever [Linger Longer] is going put in it, you’re going to want to get some return on your investment.”

Sherry feels increasing island traffic is a fair tradeoff for the planned improvements. “There’s people that’ll throw themselves in front of the bulldozers if they start [developing],” he says. “It’s crazy. The island is going broke. And we’ve got somebody that wants to come in and spend $350 million to bring it back to respectability. I’m all for it.”

There was a time when Jekyll residents simply paid for improvements with their own money.

The History

Sitting on the westward-facing veranda of the 120-year-old Jekyll Island Club bathed in rose and lilac light from the setting sun, it’s easy to imagine the serenity and charm that drew the giants of business, industry, politics and society to these marshes 120 years ago to form the club, the nation’s most prestigious social institution at the time.

The men who took their cigars and brandy here were the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans and Astors, and dozens of others who lorded over American railroads, shipping, manufacturing, finance and law.

It has been estimated that members of the Jekyll Island Club at one time held one-sixth of the world’s wealth. They were the robber barons of the 19th century’s Industrial Age who traveled from estates in the north to this tiny isle to hunt, fish and play during the winter season. Their marriages made the front pages, and the death of any one of them could send shock waves through the stock market. These were men who feasted on the opportunities provided by the expanding economy of the day, and for whom modern tycoons such as Donald Trump would have seemed small change.

But the gilding began to fade on the island when World War II took the young men who served the wealthy their drinks and toted their golf clubs. By the end of April 1942, the Jekyll Island Club was closed and the 20-room “cottages” built by the wealthiest Americans were left empty. In 1947, the state bought Jekyll Island from the last of the island shareholders. The purchase included the club and 50 other buildings, with contents. The price: $675,000.

The idea then was to provide a beachfront state park for Georgia’s citizens, but that plan had trouble taking hold. “During the period 1948 to 1950, the state opened the main clubhouse as a hotel,” the Jekyll Island Museum’s John Hunter says. “And [the state] began ferry service to the island, but they realized quickly that, as a state park, this kind of beast that they had just purchased was really beyond the means and ability of the state to take care of and invest in long-term.”

Thus, the Jekyll Island Authority was born as a public/private partnership to develop the island. From the beginning, state law limited development to no more than 35 percent of the island’s land area, with a directive to keep accommodations affordable. Early on, the island’s boosters saw education for youth as a primary part of Jekyll’s mission. It still is.

Much of the infrastructure and buildings a visitor uses today date to the 1950s. In 1954 a causeway was built to link the mainland with the island. Residential lots were apportioned and a kind of lottery was begun to sell 99-year ground leases to the lots.

“For a small retainer – I think $100 – people could take the chance of their name being drawn,” Hunter says. But there were few gamblers willing to take a chance for a piece of paradise. “They couldn’t give the leases away; nobody wanted them.”

The island lots became a “plum orchard,” plum being a political reward. “There were a lot of state officials who came in and paid their $100 and they got their lot lease,” Hunter says. “There are descendents of those officials who still own homes here.”

Beginning in 1956, the island saw a building boom as roads, bathhouses, a campground, golf courses, motels and a conference center sprang up. Commercial enterprises moved in, stayed a while and then moved out. Over the years the prevailing architectural tone – originally set by millionaires’ cottages – became sullied by the slap-dash construction of a strip shopping center, the island’s commercial district at the gateway to the beach. Hotels declined and so did the numbers of visitors and conventioneers.

By the beginning of this decade it was clear to most residents and visitors that Jekyll needed a make-over. There was a wide variety of opinions on the scope and nature of such an undertaking. In the end, the authority chose as its redevelopment partner Linger Longer Commun-ities, developers of Greene County’s Reynolds Plantation and Reynolds Landing.

Jim Langford, Linger Longer’s project executive, assembled the team that drafted the master plan. The JIA/Linger Longer project calls for a new 135,000-square-foot convention center with an attached hotel, a beach village and 48,000 square feet of retail space, plus a yet-to-be-determined number of cottages reflecting the look of those built in the island’s historic district a century ago.

Improvements are to be made on the golf courses, bike paths and other amenities. The plan also calls for an environmental discovery center where visitors can learn about the barrier islands, marsh ecology, tides, global warming. A new playground and miniature golf course are planned. All of this, Langford says, will come with a minimum impact on the island’s culture and environment.

“We are doing this development on a tiny portion of Jekyll on previously disturbed land,” says Langford, who describes himself as a land preservationist. “And we are not destroying environmentally sensitive areas, and we are doing it [development] in a way that will make Jekyll self-sustaining.”

The Plan

Fears that the island will become too expensive for working families are unfounded, says Jim Broadwell, the Jekyll Island Authority’s project manager.

“Our goal was to have [lodging] in the lower rates; some in the moderate rates; and some in the higher rates, so that we have something for every Georgian,” he says. And that lodging will be constructed to reflect the architecture of the island’s historic district. The plan also will restrict hotels to a height of no more than 64 feet, or six floors, with 70 percent of the inhabitable floors no higher than 54 feet and the balance on the last floor, Broadwell says.

Potential beneficiaries of the plan are the conventioneers the authority hopes to entice back to the island and the vacationing families who will be more inclined to make longer stays.

At the end of April a new decision-maker entered the picture when the authority announced the appointment of C. Jones Hooks as the JIA’s new executive director, ending a four-month vacancy created when the former director, Bill Donohue, left at the end of 2007 to take a similar position with the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority. Hooks is a native of Metter and has served in economic development positions in Camden County and Albany.

Exact locations for Jekyll’s new accommodations have shifted like the island’s windswept beach dunes throughout the project’s history. In this year’s session of the General Assembly, there was a flurry of legislation – none of which passed – to scale back the development plans. And just 24 hours before the end of the session, the JIA announced that a beachside parking lot slated to become a village square would instead become a public park.

Jekyll Island Authority officials say the development plan is a fluid work-in-progress and may take different shapes as the project moves along. There is little likelihood any final plan will please all. Like the tides that push and pull at Jekyll’s shores, the arguments seem destined to become eternal.

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