Jekyll set to unveil its jewel
Convention center key to latest changes on island for the ‘average Georgian.

Atlanta Journal - Constitution

By Dan Chapman
April 29, 2012

  JEKYLL ISLAND — There’s loyalty, and then there’s Jimmy Matthews.

Each spring for the last decade, while this state park by the sea underwent a series of financial, political and civic upheavals, Matthews insisted that Jekyll remained the best spot for his association’s springtime convention.

It mattered little to Matthews and convention-goers with the Georgia Rural Water Association that hotels were demolished and the retail district moved into a trailer park.

Tents replaced the convention center, yet Matthews and his flock kept coming, as they have for 33 consecutive years. Delay upon delay in the planned redevelopment didn’t dent Williams’ enthusiasm for the island he calls “a hidden treasure.”

His patience will be rewarded when the new $36 million Jekyll Island Convention Center opens May 20. Matthews’ trade group will christen the sleek oceanside conference and meeting hall.

“We are so honored to be the first group, but we deserve it because we stuck by them,” Mat-thews, who runs the water association from Barnesville, 45 minutes south of Atlanta, said last week. “In our eyes, they can do no wrong.”

Others see it differently.

Slow-growth activists, island residents and oth- er Jekyll lovers from across Georgia fought large-scale redevelopment plans every step of the way. Attempts to transform the state park, whose mandate is to remain affordable for “the average Georgian,” into an upscale, condo-heavy development were, for the time being, thwarted.

“Certainly the project has evolved along the lines we had envisioned way back in 2008,” said Jekyll resident David Egan, who along with his wife, Mindy, led the fight against overdevelopment. “We’re certainly happy that we’re dealing with something that’s consistent with what you’d expect to find in a state park. But there’s an awful lot out there left to be done.”

Jekyll’s current remake, including the state-financed convention center and oceanside park, has been warmly received even by former critics of island development. The Jekyll Island Authority ( JIA), which runs the state park, expects to start construction soon on an $8 million retail-restaurant project set to open in mid-2013.

But financing for other Jekyll projects remains iffy. Private redevelopment of three major beachfront properties is stalled as the Texas leaseholder awaits confirmation of Jekyll’s rebound. And the convention center faces stiff competition from other conference halls in Georgia and the Southeast.

Still, the convention center’s grand opening — with a cocktail reception and ribbon-cutting by Gov. Nathan Deal — is a milestone that will be celebrated.

“It’s been a long and rocky road with more ... twists and turns than expected,” said Jones Hooks, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority since June 2008. “There’s a lot of anticipation and excitement about Jekyll Island now, and it’s very positive. It’s about time.”

  Big plans

Jekyll Island’s riches-to-somewhat-raggedy history is well-known to many native Georgians. Once a wintertime playground for Northern industrialists named Morgan, Vanderbilt and Pulitzer, the famed Jekyll Island Club Hotel and village are designated a National Historic Landmark.

Since 1983, the island’s 4-H Center has offered thousands of Georgia schoolchildren their first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. Vacationers from Ball Ground to Brunswick frequent the 7.5-mile-long barrier island 300 miles southeast of Atlanta.

By law, Jekyll must remain affordable. Unlike St. Simons and Sea Island, its upscale neighbors to the north, the state park has largely stayed true to its populist mandate.

Time and competition, though, eroded Jekyll’s cachet and profitability. Hotels grew moldy, upgrades were few and profits dwindled. In 2004, the Jekyll Island Authority began considering redevelopment.

Owners of the upscale Reynolds Plantation, 80 miles east of Atlanta, proposed a $352 million plan to “revitalize” Jekyll in 2007. Their “Linger Longer” project promised 1,100 hotel, condo and time-share units along 64 acres of prime beachfront property. The politically connected Reynolds family — they had given nearly $30,000 to Gov. Sonny Perdue’s election campaigns — vowed to finish their project by 2012.

  Opposition was swift and vocal.

“It was a bad fit for Jekyll from Day One — overkill to the Nth degree,” said Egan, whose Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island State Park rallied the statewide opposition. “Public outrage got the [authority] board’s attention. Then the economy started to sag, Linger Longer got into its own troubles and everything snowballed from there.”

Reynolds offered a scaled-down version in 2008, but financing for coastal development evaporated and Jekyll’s board pulled the plug on Linger Longer a year later. The debt-ridden Reynolds Plantation, meanwhile, is up for sale.

Other pieces of Jekyll’s revitalization stalled during the recession, too. Nobody could get financing for hotels, condos, shops or restaurants. Trammell Crow, a national apartment developer, pays the Authority $330,000 a year to lease three choice oceanfront properties, in hopes it can build on them one day.

In 2008, Jekyll collected $17.5 million in revenue, the authority reported. Revenue dipped to $16.7 million in fiscal 2011.

Hotel occupancy rates reached 52.4 percent in 2008. Last year, they dropped to 47.8 percent.

Yet the authority, with $50 million in state-backed bonds, moved forward. In addition to the convention center, the JIA refashioned the island entryway and public beach.

“There was such a desire to make something happen on this island because we saw that the real numbers — visitation, revenues — continued to decline,” Hooks said. “Somebody had to do something.”

  Progress at last

Hooks offered a tour of the convention center this month as electricians installed message boards and landscapers replanted palm trees. The 128,000-square-foot building mimics the coastal environment, with ample use of pastel greens, blues and tans, pine wood from South Georgia barns and oyster shells and sea glass embedded in terrazzo floors. A rooftop cistern and recharging stations for electric cars underscore the building’s environmental bona fides.

The recession, Hooks said, let the authority get the convention center right. “These unexpected [delays] resulted in a better product than we may have otherwise had,” he said.

Jekyll expects to host small and medium-sized conventions with no more than 3,000 attendees. Hooks said more than 200 conventions, meetings, weddings and other events are planned through 2016, though some are contingent on to-be-built accommodations.

The convention center will open without an accompanying hotel. Another planned hotel, as well as a slew of shops and restaurants, is also way behind schedule. Hooks estimated that, until the hotels are built, 18 percent of convention-goers will need to find accommodations off of the island.

Jekyll’s private developers have tried every which way to finance their projects: commercial banks, federal government-backed loans, foreign investors and Georgia tax breaks.

A 200-room Westin hotel, to be built alongside the convention center, is close to securing financing and expects to break ground in September, said Kevin Runner, a managing partner of the development group. The $35 million hotel could open in early 2014. An additional 39 “suites” in three separate buildings are also planned.

Construction of a 135-room Hyatt Place hotel, due to open in mid-2013, is scheduled to begin this summer, though financing hasn’t been finalized, the authority said.

An Arizona developer backed out of plans to build restaurants , shops, a post office and 60 lofts, so the Jekyll authority took on the project, but dropped the lofts.

“They’ve been planning a new shopping village for the 30-something years I’ve been here,” said Nana Ferguson, who owns Whittle’s Gift Shop, which has been housed in a trailer the last 18 months. “If we get the conventions we’re supposed to get, we should do a lot better. But whether that happens or not, nobody knows.”

Heywood Sanders, a hospitality expert at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the convention industry is overbuilt and Jekyll faces competition regionally from Atlanta, Cobb County, Augusta, Savannah, Florida and South Carolina.

“It’s an increasingly crowded field for state and regional conventions,” said Sanders, a professor of public administration. “They all expected to see a boom in convention center business and it never happened.”

  ‘It’s just right’

Nearly a decade’s worth of dreams, drama and despair have brought Jekyll to a cautiously optimistic place. Buildings are rising. The economy is improving. Visitors — occupancy rates and revenue are better than last year — are coming back.

It’s unclear, though, whether “average” Georgians will share in Jekyll’s renaissance. Possible weekend summertime rates of $250 a night at the Westin are beyond what most lower- and middle-income Georgians can pay. The Hyatt Place will likely top $150 a night on weekends.

The Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island surveyed convention groups in 2008 to determine how much their members would pay for a room. Seventy percent of respondents, according to Egan, said $125 a night was “the cut-off point.”

“What they’re building now is not exactly in the affordable range for a state park,” Egan said, noting that a once planned economy hotel is no longer in the mix. “They’ve made this place better, but at what cost?”

Hooks, the authority director, said rates vary depending on the time of week and year and that “average Georgians” — that legally nebulous yet official designation — will be able to afford Jekyll. Plus, there’s always the campground on the island’s north end, Hooks added.

Matthews, the rural water director, says his members are average Georgians.

“Jekyll is a good, very comfortable fit for our group because it’s not too highfalutin’ or fancy,” he said. “We like to say it’s just right.”

Any new development proposed for Jekyll Island State Park sparks intense scrutiny from residents who want to protect the character of their unique place on Georgia’s precious seacoast.

Workers plant a palm tree outside the new Jekyll Island Convention Center, which will open in May. The official plan is to refurbish the aging resort without making it too upscale.