Brunswick Golden Isles: Revitalization in Bloom
Downtown rebirth, tourism and expansions
Move over, Port of Baltimore. The Port of Brunswick is coming for your title as the nation’s busiest port for RoRo (roll-on, roll-off) cargo. And these future bragging rights will only enhance the impressive revitalization occurring throughout Brunswick and the Golden Isles.
“Our goal is to be the No. 1 vehicle and heavy equipment port in the country,” says Joel Wooten Jr., chair of the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA). He’s confident the specialized facilities at the Port of Brunswick will get there. “There’s no other port that has the scalability we have. We handle 750,000 vehicles a year now, and we are going to double the throughput capacity.”
The massive capacity increase is already under way, and it involves both of GPA’s deepwater ports. Renovations at Ocean Terminal in Savannah will convert that facility to handle exclusively containerized cargo. The breakbulk business – uncontainerized bundled or baled cargo – it once handled is being shifted to Brunswick, which will also absorb the small portion of RoRo cargo Savannah handles.
“Last year, we were talking about doing $150 million worth of improvements at the Port of Brunswick, and that figure has gone up now to between $240 million and $250 million, and maybe up to $270 million,” Wooten says.
The work is spread out between the two facilities that make up the Port of Brunswick – Colonel’s Island, which was developed from the ground up as a RoRo facility, and Mayor’s Point, a smaller and older port specializing in breakbulk and largely eclipsed by the development of containerized freight over the past 60 years.
At Colonel’s Island, the expansion includes the addition of a fourth berth for RoRo ships, plus additional warehousing and that low-tech workhorse of any vehicle import/export facility – hundreds of acres of paved parking to hold all those cars, trucks and heavy machinery as they pause on their way in and out of the country.
The biggest part of the RoRo-related improvements, however, is under the water, according to GPA Executive Director Griff Lynch. GPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a signing ceremony in February to inaugurate a $17.3 million project to widen both the shipping channel and ship turning basins. GPA is slated to cover a third of the expense while the Corps will pay for the remainder. The project cleared Congress last year as part of the federal Water Resources Development Act reauthorization of 2022.
Lynch says the Brunswick pilots – the local experts who navigate ships in and out of the channel – approached GPA about the need to improve the channel in response to the ongoing increase in RoRo vessel size. The latest such ships now have a capacity between 7,000 and 8,000 “car equivalent units,” he says, and the added capacity means the ships need more room to maneuver. “This will be a federal investment in conjunction with the state.”
With capacity comes customers. Last fall saw Nissan move its business to Brunswick, becoming the 25th vehicle company to ship from there. Those customers, the increasing globalization of the auto industry and the growth of the Southeastern U.S. as an auto manufacturing center have led to such anomalies as Mercedes-Benz SUVs being imported into Germany from an Alabama plant via a Georgia port.
Meanwhile, Colonel’s Island still has hundreds of vacant, adjacent acres that GPA owns, ready to expand beyond the already-announced doubling of capacity. That room to expand is a definite competitive advantage, Wooten says, and one that should be credited to GPA leaders 40-plus years ago who decided to secure the land well before anyone else ever considered Brunswick a contender to become the leading vehicle import/export port in the nation. Brunswick still ranks second, but the gap is closing in the highly volatile auto business.
Wallenius Wilhelmsen is a major RoRo operator that also carries breakbulk cargo. The shipping customer is playing a role in the revitalization of both the Mayor’s Point and Colonel’s Island facilities.
“Mayor’s Point has always been a breakbulk facility where we handle primarily paper rolls and paper bales. What we are going to do now is we are increasing warehouse space to handle other breakbulk, for instance, rubber [shipped in the form of large, solid blocks], and we’re doing it in response to customer requests,” says Lynch.
Breakbulk in recent years languished with little demand, but the post-pandemic supply chain fiasco showed the value of keeping traditional capacity around, ports officials say. So the historic port is getting a renewed lease on life; an older 50,000-square-foot warehouse was demolished in February to make way for construction of another twice its size, among other improvements.
It’s only appropriate that Mayor’s Point is getting a facelift. The facility is literally in downtown Brunswick – a historic waterfront community that spent the last few years at the starting gate, poised for a revitalization that is now in full bloom.
“I think a lot of people were wondering when Brunswick would truly revitalize, but downtown is now almost completely occupied by businesses,” says Scott McQuade, president and CEO of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There’s a vibrancy we haven’t seen before. I would just say that with the growth of tourism to the Golden Isles in the last two years, we’ve really seen the industry play its role in the revitalization of downtown. It’s been wonderful to see the streets busy and filled with activity.”
Regina McDuffie, Brunswick’s city manager for the past three years and counting, says the city has done its part to nurture downtown’s recovery.
“We are very supportive of downtown development, so we have basically worked well with businesses to ensure that people coming into the area to invest find it easy and a cooperative effort with the city on the need for building inspections and things the Downtown Development Authority can assist with,” she says.
A key indicator of the progress can be found in the massive mid-century building that was once Kress’s five-and-dime store, back when downtown was the hub of retail and civic activity. It opened this spring as The Kress Brunswick, an eight-key boutique hotel in the heart of downtown. All the rooms are suites, some incorporating lofts. It includes a luxe restaurant and the latest must-have amenity for a historic district tourist-destination hotel, a rooftop bar. McQuade says the design positions the hotel to compete with the lodging industry’s latest competitor, short-term vacation rentals such as Airbnb and VRBO.
Meanwhile, folks are literally climbing the walls in part of the new building – or they will be, once Brunswick Rocks throws open its doors, probably late this spring. The indoor bouldering gym is a separate and distinct tenant within the hotel and will serve a hybrid role as a mashup of open-to-the-public facility for the latest fitness craze, hotel amenity and – most important in the minds of its two founders – a nonprofit that will make bouldering and its confidence-building side effects available to disadvantaged youth.
Brunswick Rocks is a passion project of two veterans of the Golden Isles ecotourism scene: Jared DiVincent, a partner in On the Fly, a fly fishing outfitter in Brunswick providing outdoor experiences as well as a sideline in falconry, and Michael Gowen, co-owner of the St. Simons Island-based Southeast Adventure Outfitters, selling gear and running kayak, standup paddleboard and boat tours through the local waters.
“We are targeting the kids who have the least opportunities of anyone. Changing a few futures is what we have in mind,” Gowen says.
Young people who can’t afford to pay for the bouldering experience can earn their way by volunteering hours at the gym or with one of the several nonprofits that have signed up as partners.
Bouldering, unlike the related sport of rock-climbing, does not involve a tether or supporting ropes, and it is done on lower elevation courses. At Brunswick Rocks, the indoor wall has been designed by and with equipment purchased from Walltopia, a Bulgarian company prominent in the design of such facilities. The course is designed to be reconfigurable, providing a fresh set of challenges periodically by rearranging the artificial rocks on the climbing wall.
Meanwhile, hotel growth at Glynn County’s I-95 exits continues, with four new hotels on Exit 38 and another new one on Exit 36, with more planned or under construction, McQuade says. At the luxury end of the hotel spectrum, The Lodge at Sea Island is undergoing a major refresh.
Change is afoot on Jekyll Island, as well, where C. Jones Hooks is retiring after a 15-year stint as executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA). His marching orders when he took the job were to revitalize the JIA’s assets and he leaves with a largely completed to-do list.
“Revitalization had been announced and I came on about six months after the announcement. The board was very specific about their desires. They wanted to revitalize the facilities. They wanted to establish a credible conservation effort. They wanted us to partner with private partners for things we could not do, and they wanted us to establish a viable foundation,” Hooks says.
“The most significant satisfaction I get is that the island is revitalized. People are here. Everything on Jekyll is now alive,” he says.
Of course, no revitalization is ever complete. Ground was broken earlier this year on a new public safety building, plans call for a new terminal building at the island’s general aviation airport, Mercer University School of Medicine is partnering for the first on-island urgent care, and the golf courses – which surged in popularity during the pandemic and have held those gains – are being reworked.
Glynn County is tackling the ongoing issue of workforce development with practical partnerships and grow-your-own philosophies.
Teacher shortage? “We have a pathway in our school system that they take three classes on things teachers would do and they could go from there into the college or the technical school [as a dual enrollment student]. We actually have a signing day for the students who have gone through the pathway to become teachers, just like when athletes sign with the colleges,” says Scott Spence, superintendent of Glynn County Schools.
Nursing shortage? Southeast Georgia Health System knows the pain. “We are in a partnership with the College of Coastal Georgia [CCGA]. We underwrite instructors for [the college] and they are adding more students. That’s the long-term solution we have. It costs us $2 million over a four-year period,” says Scott Raynes, president and CEO of the health system. Thanks to the new expansion, the nursing course sequence begins twice each year instead of once, with the inaugural spring cohort starting classes this past January.
Trouble finding skilled tradespeople? Brian Weese, now in his first academic year as CEO of the foundation for the Golden Isles College and Career Academy, explains that high school students can take as many as 30 hours – the equivalent of 10 courses – at no added cost to them via dual enrollment and transfer those courses to college or technical colleges within the state.
And CCGA President Michelle Johnston, Ph.D., notes that young welders, plumbers and those in other technical fields who have earned their Associate of Applied Sciences degree from any of Georgia’s technical colleges have just gotten a potential career boost thanks to an articulation agreement CCGA just signed. (An articulation agreement allows students to transfer academic credits for a course taken at one institution to another institution.)
“We are offering to accept all their credits, and they can continue here and receive a bachelor’s degree in workforce management and leadership. We offer it fully online because we understand the lives of these students,” Johnson says.
Spence, Johnson and Lonnie Roberts, president of Coastal Pines Technical College, meet monthly to talk about collaboration. That collaboration frequently falls in two fields, dual enrollment and articulation, and Roberts says the trio agrees on the value of less debt and faster entry into the workplace for motivated students.
“Let’s make this a money-saving thing and a time-saving thing for them,” Roberts says.
The business community has also stepped up for workforce development. That includes traditional moves, like local paving contractor Seaboard Construction underwriting the software that runs heavy equipment simulators at Golden Isles College and Career Academy. But more unconventional moves have paid off, too, like the Golden Isles Development Authority (GIDA) paying a third of Weese’s salary.
The authority has always been represented on the career academy’s board, and when the foundation CEO position opened up, it saw an opportunity. “Why don’t we broaden the role and split the cost?” says Ryan Moore, GIDA president and CEO. The group had long had ambitions for a workforce development professional on its staff. Now the school system, the technical college and GIDA share Weese’s salary and he has workforce development responsibilities for the community at large as well as the schools.
The Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce is adding a long-range component to its workforce development plans, says Chamber President and CEO Ralph Staffins III. Working with the school system, it has paired business mentors with early elementary school students for one-on-one virtual sessions of reading games and support activities, so mentors can spend their time with
the students, not the commute. Also, 100 kindergarteners went home at the end of the school year with a library of 10 books to boost their skills. The reading/mentor software and the books were financed by a $30,000 grant from Rich Products, a local frozen seafood processor.
The chamber is also focusing on development among its own membership, with a new program called Golden Bridges.
“It’s going to help our small businesses do business with our large businesses, like the county, the schools and the mills,” Staffins says. “The goal is not just to help small businesses accelerate but also to keep dollars local. We reached out to our large employers and asked what services they were buying elsewhere. We want to meet as many of those gaps locally as possible.”
Ryan Moore is eager to see these workforce development strategies bear fruit, because GIDA is recruiting for new “capital-intensive rail-dependent manufacturing prospects” on a massive site it just invested in.
“The development authority purchased 1,400 acres we are calling the Breakbulk Site,” Moore says, driven by the chance to capitalize on business from the additional breakbulk traffic coming through the port. “We recently purchased the property and we are actively engineering it, so it is ready for development.”
It all comes back, as often happens in Glynn County, to where it started – at the port.
Tiny Homes, Huge Impact
When you are talking about tiny houses, every decision matters. There’s literally no room for error when you have just 240 square feet of living space.
That’s why there’s a covered front porch in front of every one of the 60 newly built tiny homes that make up The Grove at Correll Commons, a housing development for unsheltered people. The folks behind the development want to foster a sense of community there, and where better to start than a front porch in a complex where the homes face one another?
“We are a nonprofit that is going to house chronically homeless individuals that have been in Glynn County the longest,” said Anne Stembler, founder of Hand in Hand of Glynn, the faith-based nonprofit behind the tiny homes. “We are a permanent, affordable tiny house project.”
Note the word “permanent.” Once residents move in, as long as they follow the rules and pay their portion of the rent, they can say as long as they like. “We feel very strongly that this is permanent housing. A lot of these people have been on the street for a long time, and we do not personally think transitional housing is the answer for them,” Stembler says.
Along with housing, wraparound services such as classrooms, a food pantry and a medical clinic will be offered.
The complex is named in honor of Pete Correll, former president, CEO and chair of Georgia-Pacific Corp. Correll, who died in 2021, was a Brunswick native and a supporter of Hand in Hand of Glynn.
“We are a totally gated community, both for the health of our residents as well as to protect them from predators, because there are a lot of predators that prey on homeless people,” said Linda Heagy, Hand in Hand’s treasurer. “Obviously, a resident can come and go as they want but others have to show ID.”
To qualify, a potential resident must be at least 24 years old, unmarried and have been homeless for a year in Glynn County, or for a total of a year out of the past three. Rent is set at a third of whatever income the resident receives, such as a Social Security check. Others may get vouchers from the Brunswick Housing Authority, and organizers are setting up “scholarship funds” for those who cannot pay.
Heagy says they are filling the houses about eight at a time, intent on community building and making sure the experience goes well for the residents. The first tenants will likely move in this month and she expects the complex to be fully occupied by the end of the year.