Jekyll upscale redeveloper backs out of project

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By Dan Chapman
December 9, 2009

Jekyll Island State Park ’s upscale redevelopment plans hit the skids Tuesday when the main developer pulled out of the project.

Opponents of the plan who prefer slower growth cheered the decision by Linger Longer Communities, the politically influential company that owns Reynolds Plantation 90 minutes east of Atlanta, to quit the $170 million hotel-condo-retail development. They called it a victory for budget-conscious, beach-loving Georgians, many of whom got a first whiff of salt air along Jekyll’s shores.

Disappointed Jekyll Island officials, along with Gov. Sonny Perdue who championed a revitalized Jekyll five years ago, vowed that reconstruction of the state-owned barrier island near Brunswick will continue. A new retail district, convention center and beachfront park remain on the books.

Yet wide-ranging plans to replace many of the island’s decades-old motels with mid- and high-priced hotel rooms, condos and time-share units – proposed by Linger Longer and other developers -- remain stuck in recessionary mud. Construction financing and condo buyers remain elusive. Some projects could fall way behind schedule with only hints of a coastal redevelopment renaissance on the horizon.

David Egan, a Jekyll resident who has fought the island’s upscale revitalization, said Georgians should be pleased that Linger Longer is out of the picture.

“It’s a victory in the sense that we hope the (Jekyll Island) Authority will step back and try to take into account what the people want for the state park, not what the developers want,” he said. “It’s a victory for a public vision for the state park.”

In a statement, Reynolds chairman Mercer Reynolds, whose company has given thousands of dollars to Perdue’s campaigns and the state Republican party, said the developer decided to pull the plug “due to the uncertainty of the economic environment and the difficulty that this uncertainty imposes on a workable development schedule.”

Yet from the beginning, the public-private partnership ran into strong opposition from Jekyll-loving activists, politicians and others. Emotions run high along the 7.5-mile island once the playground of northern industrialists and popular with many Atlantans as a place to vacation or even buy a second home.

By law, 65 percent of the island must remain untouched by development. Linger Longer first proposed a $352 million redevelopment in 2007. A year later, the developer scaled back its plans and decided to build only two hotels, a time-share condo complex, lofts and a small shopping center. Much of the development would sit squarely on the highly coveted, and typically expensive, beachfront.

In a highly controversial move, the Authority granted Linger Longer first dibs on every development or management contract for the next 25 years. Critics, including Sen. Jeff Chapman, the Brunswick Republican whose district covers Jekyll, were incensed at the no-competition deal, especially during a severe state budget crunch.

While not necessarily opposed to plans for a new convention center, mid-scale hotel rooms and retail offerings, Chapman, Egan and others rallied Georgians statewide to kill Linger Longer’s plans. The economy, eventually, did their bidding.

Eric Garvey, the Jekyll Authority’s spokeman, said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon that the deal fell apart “by mutual consent.”

“The issue of timing was key,” Garvey said, adding that the Authority hadn’t paid Linger Longer any money that is stipulated by the management contract. “It’s very important from the JIA’s perspective to keep the project moving on a consistent and known timeline. With the uncertainty in the economy, that was posing problems.”

Garvey added that Linger Longer wasn’t expected to hit its 2012 completion date for the Beach Village hotel-condo project. The taxpayer-backed convention center is due on line at that time. A privately-developed mid-priced Hampton Inn is expected to open next month.

Monday, Perdue and other dignitaries planted a ceremonial 16-foot palm tree at the proposed Great Dunes park overlooking the ocean. The state is also backing $50 million in bonds for a new convention center, a financial deal Sen. Chapman vowed Tuesday to revisit.

Perdue, through a spokesman, said the bonds have been sold and the convention center should open in 2012.

Perdue “is a pretty impatient person. He would prefer to see everything done a lot faster, whether it’s Jekyll, water (talks) or anything else,” Bert Brantley said. “His disappointment would never hinge on Linger Longer not getting the job done. He would be disappointed if this puts the project behind schedule.”

Sen. Chapman, who’s running for governor, was pleased to learn Tuesday that a sole private developer will no longer control Jekyll’s core growth for the next 25 years. The Authority announced Tuesday all future projects will be individually bid.

“That’s good for the people,” Chapman said. “It didn’t make economic sense and the JIA finally figured that out.”

Yet the Authority is stuck with a large hole in its redevelopment plans. Another developer or two must be found to build the hotels, condos and shops. In addition, Trammell Crow and other developers have slowed or killed plans to build other projects on the island.

Garvey, though, said the Beach Village will move forward.

“I’m very optimistic we will be able to move forward to engage private developers into this project,” he said. “I don’t want you to think it’s all gloom and doom.”