Jekyll a deciding factor in race

Republican primary: Sen. Jeff Chapman vows to fight any efforts to line island with high-rises; developer Terry Carter says it's time to update the coastal state park.

By James Salzer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 07/12/08

Brunswick —- State Sen. Jeff Chapman isn't sure he would be in a tough Republican primary re-election fight Tuesday if he'd just gone along with the plans to remake Jekyll Island State Park.

"If I did go along to get along, I would hope I'd have gotten an opponent, and I'd have hoped he would have whipped me," the soft-spoken former Glynn County commissioner said. "I never really feared not getting elected. What I feared was not doing what's right."

Brunswick developer and natural-born salesman Terry Carter is challenging Chapman, arguing that the two-term senator has cheated his constituents by trying to roadblock plans to update a faded coastal jewel.

"It's popular to go against the grain. People like the idea of having that maverick to look after the little man," Carter said. "That's fine, but just like Don Quixote and Poncho, at the end of the day, it's still a windmill.

"It's a shame what the state of Georgia has allowed Jekyll Island to become."

The battle of the state park's future is being played out along the coast in one of the most expensive and nasty legislative campaigns of this primary season. Combined, the two will likely spend $250,000 in hopes of winning the primary.

In a series of mailings and radio ads, Chapman is being portrayed as a do-nothing politician who is so hard to get along with and ineffective that Republican leaders have refused to give him any leadership posts in Atlanta.

However, he has gotten contributions from Senate leaders.

Carter has been accused of being a pawn of the Jekyll developers, willing to sell the island's quiet life and long stretches of largely untouched beach for a fast buck.

That despite the fact that he's promised to fight any effort to turn Jekyll into a new Boca Raton, Fla., lined with high-rises. And his campaign is largely a self-funded effort, paid for mostly with at least $140,000 in personal loans.

Some locals see the Chapman-Carter race as a referendum on the decision state officials made to allow the redevelopment of Jekyll Island, and how they went about it.

Jekyll's future has been in dispute since the state announced four years ago that it wanted to boost revenues and revitalize the state park. By law only 35 percent of the island can be developed, and most of that land is already built upon. In addition, state law mandates that the park remain affordable for "average Georgians."

In September, the Jekyll Island Authority selected Greensboro-based developer Linger Longer to help revitalize the barrier island. The company planned a 64-acre, $352 million project filled with hundreds of hotel rooms, condos, time-share units and shops along the Atlantic Ocean.

The project has since been scaled back, and Chapman is credited with helping create a public outcry against the plans and with fighting for Jekyll residents and visitors at the Capitol.

Nick Doster, a Brunswick banker, said the candidates' stance on Jekyll Island is a "major difference" in the race.

"I like Jeff. He's a man of integrity, he stands up for what he believes in," he said. "But I think most people other than the older people (living) on Jekyll Island understand there needs to be changes.

"I have been here 45 years, and some of those hotels are older than I am."

Of Carter, Doster said, "I think Terry has got the smarts and the right motives."

David Egan, a Jekyll Island retiree who helped galvanize public opposition to the beachfront development, isn't so sure.

He sees Carter as a candidate of state GOP leaders supporting the redevelopment. And he compares Chapman to Jimmy Stewart's character in the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." In the movie, the political machine finds a handpicked innocent to fill a U.S. Senate seat, only to have the new senator, Stewart's character, fight the machine.

"In many respects, he's naively honest, and that's what people like so much about him," Egan said of Chapman.

Like many legislative leaders, Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) supports revitalization efforts on Jekyll. But Williams contributed $1,000 to Chapman's campaign and did an endorsement on You Tube.

"You can't disqualify somebody because of one issue," said Williams, who also lent his name to a fund-raiser for Chapman this week.

"I think most people in Glynn County understand that Jekyll needed a face-lift."

Much of Chapman's financial backing has come from outside the district, which includes Brantley, Camden, Charlton, Glynn and McIntosh counties. He has received contributions from 17 states and Canada, with many donors praising his fight against development on Jekyll Island.

Bill LaFollette, a retired educator from New Albany, Ind., contributed $50 and wrote Chapman a note thanking him for his work "to protect Jekyll Island from becoming just another beach resort on the coast.

"It is so unique it would be tragic to lose it," he wrote on behalf of himself and his wife, Donna. "I'm only sorry we can't vote in Georgia."