Posted on Thu, Jul. 17, 2008
Lawmaker's win seen as referendum on Jekyll Island
By Russ Bynum
At first blush, state Sen. Jeff Chapman's election victory doesn't appear too significant - an incumbent lawmaker defeating an upstart challenger in a Republican primary.
But since Chapman's opponent made the redevelopment of Jekyll Island a central issue in the race, supporters of the Brunswick lawmaker say his Tuesday night win sent a strong message to developers that Chapman's coastal constituents don't favor giving the rustic state park an upscale makeover.
Chapman, of Brunswick, has been an outspoken critic of a $352 million proposal to revitalize Jekyll Island with new condominiums, beachfront hotels and shopping centers. The island, once a winter getaway for America's wealthiest industrialists, was bought by the state in 1947 to set aside as an inexpensive beach for average Georgians.
"I simply tried to prevent the big guy from knocking the little guy off his public bench," Chapman said Wednesday. He credited his win to "the little guy, the ordinary Georgian who doesn't necessarily have a lot of influence."
Developer Terry Carter entered the primary race pushing Jekyll Island's revitalization as a top concern. Like some of the state's top Republicans, he argued the island could be a world-class tourist destination if its aging, budget motels were replaced with classier attractions. Carter accused Chapman of "obstructing progress."
Chapman won the GOP primary with 54 percent of 17,024 votes cast. With no Democrat seeking his seat in the fall, the victory clinched his return to the Capitol for another term.
David Egan, an island resident and co-founder of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, called Chapman's victory "a referendum" on the island's future.
"When Terry Carter emerged as a candidate, his biggest talking point was that when it comes to Jekyll Island, Jeff Chapman was part of the problem and not the solution," Egan said. "Most of his statements have been highly supportive of big-time development on the island, and people didn't vote in favor of that."
Carter spent $151,000 on the race, more than double the incumbent's spending of $74,000. The challenger raised $110,000 of his campaign fund by taking out personal loans.
Carter did not immediately return a phone call and e-mail message seeking comment Wednesday. A woman who answered the phone at his office said he had gone out of town.
The Jekyll Island Authority, which operates the island for the state, selected developer Linger Longer Communities last year to devise a plan for revitalizing Jekyll while observing the mandate that 65 percent of the island remain undisturbed.
Chapman tried to stop part of the developers plan, which would have built hotels or condos on a sprawling parking lot next to the beach, through legislation that was blocked by Senate leaders. But Linger Longer backed off and pledged to put a public park and improved parking on the site instead.
Jim Langford, Linger Longer's project manager for Jekyll Island, said Wednesday the developer played no role in supporting Carter. He said he doesn't see Chapman's victory as having a larger impact on the debate over Jekyll.
"There are some people who don't want anything to happen on Jekyll, and they think they have a champion in Jeff Chapman," Langford said. "I think for those people he was their choice. I don't know that it means anything else."
Ed Boshears, a member of the Jekyll Island Authority board, disagrees.
Boshears, a former state senator from St. Simons Island, said he agrees with Chapman that Jekyll needs some upgrades to replace moldy, crumbling hotels, some of which have been torn down.
The real debate, he says, is over whether building hundreds of condominiums and timeshare units on the island would price Jekyll outside the means of the middle-class. A 1950 state law states explicitly the island should be accessible to Georgians of "average income."
"The voters in Glynn County have sent a message" in re-electing Chapman, Boshears said. "They do not want massive condominium development on Jekyll Island."