Jekyll Island Authority courting new developers

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By Dan Chapman
December 30, 2009

Georgia’s once-grand plans to rebuild Jekyll Island suffered a grievous, time-wasting blow when the state severed relations with its development partner earlier this month.

But the board that runs the state park is already lining up new developers who might instead build the hotels, condos and shops once planned for the southeast Georgia barrier island.

The Jekyll Island Authority will hold an open house Jan. 20-21 for interested developers and hoteliers. So far, 15 prospective partners have signed up.

Timing is critical. The Authority is pushing forward, and has the bond money in hand, to build a new convention center scheduled to open in spring 2012. Opening an adjoining hotel at the same time is the state’s top redevelopment priority for Jekyll, a popular and affordable vacation destination for generations of Atlantans.

But the lousy economy, with bank financing still scarce, could thwart the Authority’s plans.

Other problems loom. Slow-growth activists, who helped stymie the Authority’s original redevelopment plans, promise to bird-dog any new proposals to maintain the island’s low-key, low-rise allure. They also want, as state law mandates, to ensure that Jekyll remains affordable “for average Georgians.”

They’ll oppose any long-term deals that hand over valuable beachfront property to developers, especially without the state receiving a significant return on investment. In addition, state Sen. Jeff Chapman, the Brunswick Republican who has persistently criticized Jekyll’s redevelopment plans, wants to replace Authority board members.

Eric Garvey, the Authority’s marketing director, said lessons have been learned from the earlier, ill-fated partnership, and Jekyll is now poised for steady, universally acceptable growth.

“As long as we get the (new) hotel underway, we’re comfortable,” he said. “And there are signs the economy is taking a turn. Overall, we’re still very optimistic.”

Linger Longer, which owns the upscale Reynolds Plantation 90 minutes east of Atlanta, had initially proposed a $352 million beachfront project with a couple of hotels, a new retail district and dozens of condos and time-share units.

By law, Jekyll must be financially self-sustaining. Two fiscal years ago, Jekyll took in $17.5 million. Last year, revenues dropped a million bucks.

The recession scaled back Linger Longer’s plans in 2008. The development price tag was halved, to $170 million. Yet Linger Longer maintained its 25-year management contract and first dibs on any and all development. That, coupled with unusually favorable profit-sharing terms, incensed Sen. Chapman and other critics.

On Dec. 8, the Authority announced that the deal was dead. Garvey said Linger Longer wasn’t expected to hit its spring 2012 completion date for a convention center hotel and other buildings.

In the future, according to Garvey, the Authority will bid each project separately. And it won’t sign long-term, exclusive pacts with a sole developer.

“All of us are pleased because probably the most insidious thing hanging out there was Linger Longer’s 25-year hold on the island,” Frank Mirasola, past president of the Jekyll Island Citizens Association, said Tuesday. “But, as the old saying goes, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Who knows what we’ll get next?”

Garvey said some Linger Longer components will likely disappear. A hotel planned along the beach and south of the convention center might be smaller, yet of higher quality, he said.

Another hotel, a more affordable one planned a block off the beach, could be incorporated into the retail district. And, with the collapse of the coastal second-home market, the push for condos and parking decks along the beach has dwindled.

Garvey added that the Authority “questions at this point in time the viability of” time-share units, the much-protested rental condos. Cottages, a hotel, even parkland could instead fill the time-share space along the Atlantic Ocean, he added.

David Egan, co-director of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, is guardedly optimistic that the Authority will indeed abandon the time share units and other, sprawl-inducing projects.

“The priority now seems to be on (building) two new hotels and it should be,” he said. “Obviously, it makes sense for the convention center to have a new hotel, especially if it’s an affordable one. But going ahead with the convention center without having anybody on board for a convention hotel seems a bit dicey.”

The Authority has sold $50 million in taxpayer-backed bonds to build the new meeting hall, a park, roads and other infrastructure. Construction began earlier this month on the beachfront Great Dunes Park. A privately developed mid-priced Hampton Inn should open next week. The retail district is scheduled for demolition, and re-construction, after the upcoming summer season.

Garvey said Georgia’s realtors, dentists and convenience store owners are again planning annual meetings on Jekyll, once the convention center and adjoining hotel is built.

“The key economic driver for Jekyll’s revitalization is the convention center,” he said.