Jekyll says it’s in control

Contract gives developer options, but board makes decision

The Brunswick News
January 2, 2009
By Anna Ferguson

In the weeks since the Jekyll Island Authority and Linger Longer Communities penned a 25-year private-public partnership agreement, some critics have raised concerns that the contract allows properties owned by the authority potentially to fall into private control.

Worries have been voiced by island residents and state Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, that the 25-year agreement will allow the private, Georgia-based developer to manage key attractions on the island,  including the 63-hole golf courses and miniature golf course, Summer Waves water park, the island campground and Blackbeard’s restaurant.

“Does no one see anything wrong with all of this?” asked island resident Sandy Cerrato, about the partnership deal signed on Dec. 1.

The authority maintains that Linger Longer will not be in control of any properties.

Jones Hooks, executive director of the authority, said the authority board of directors will retain control of all of Jekyll’s properties, though Linger Longer could be allowed to manage certain enterprises on the island in the coming years, adding that “there is a strong flow of misinformation out there stirring up fear.”

“The authority is still in control of the property,” Hooks said. “I can assure you that any proposal agreed to would be a win-win situation. We wouldn’t enter into an agreement with anyone if it wasn’t good for the authority, Jekyll residents and our guests.”

Under the private-public lease agreement, the authority states that Linger Longer has the ability to present a proposal to the authority board to manage specific properties on the island through partnering development proposals, which are described in the contract as “proposals to enter into a Lease Agreement for the development or redevelopment of a specified parcel of land in the Mid- and Long-Range Revitalization area.”

Linger Longer is required to go before the Jekyll Island Authority board and propose a detailed plan to manage island attractions, with decisions regarding benefits, profits and further agreements to be decided on a case-by-case basis, said Eric Garvey, marketing director and spokesman for the authority.

The agreement also works in reverse, Hooks said, allowing the authority to propose to Linger Longer to acquire specific properties. “We have the ability to say, ‘we’d like you take over this property’,” Garvey said. “The good news for the public is that the board has the ability to reject or agree to these proposals, to set policy and be in control. There is a definite system of checks and balances.”

Garvey said allowing a private developer to acquire one or more of the authority’s properties could be a needed relief for the authority, which has steadily been seeing a decrease in profits as island visitation has decreased the past several years. The island golf courses, for example, have seen a massive drop in use and drastic decrease in profits this year. A private company overseeing the property could have an easier time making market adjustments and implementing new management practices to raise revenue and to increase usage, Garvey said.

“We are held to certain guidelines and restrictions that a private company does not have,” Garvey said. “A private business has the flexibility to be more progressive and move forward faster than we do.”

Hooks said allowing an outside group to operate an island property would give that property more leeway as far as business practices, and could be advantageous for more effective and efficient management. Private businesses also have an easier time acquiring the funds and financial backing needed to redevelop or manage enterprises than a government-funded entity does, especially in a time of budget crunches, shortfalls and setbacks, Hooks said.

Critics of the agreement, such as Chapman, have also raised concerns that Linger Longer, which operates the upscale Georgia resorts Reynolds Plantation and Reynolds Landing, will create a Jekyll Island that is no longer affordable for the average Georgian. “There is nothing contractually that would prevent Linger Longer from upscaling Jekyll Island State Park’s recreational facilities to the point where they may be priced beyond the reach of the people of average income for whose benefit the park was established over a half century ago,” Chapman said. “There are no controls built into the contract to require Linger Longer to manage and operate the park’s recreational facilities in accord with Jekyll’s affordability mandate.”

The authority contends that Linger Longer has no such goal. From the start of the private-partner deal, the developer has made clear that it understands the Jekyll Island market, and have made no move to alter that tourist base, Hooks said.

“There is a lot of fear of the unknown floating around right now. That fear is inappropriate,” Hooks said. “Linger Longer has shown that they wholly understand that Jekyll Island is a different enterprise. They have shown a complete willingness to accomplish a revised, but not exclusive, Jekyll Island.”

As for now, the authority and Linger Longer are not looking to make any new proposals regarding island property, and the authority will maintain management of all of its current enterprises, Hooks said. The only entity the authority has even considered proposing to Linger Longer is the to-be remodeled convention center, as that property is part of the Linger Longer Beach Village development,
Hooks said.

“We are focusing, at least for the next three years or so, on getting the current project off the ground and becoming a success,” Hooks said. “From there, we’ll look at how well the process is going with Linger Longer. Until then, we have other goals to accomplish.”

Firm finds 55 available acres on Jekyll

The Brunswick News

Past and proposed developments on Jekyll Island fall well within the state-mandated cap of 35 percent of the island's land, so more could be developed.

Bill Foster, a representative of Thomas and Hutton Engineering Co., a Brunswick-based firm, told a meeting of the board of the Jekyll Island Authority Wednesday that the firm had found that the island had more than 55 acres of land that could still be developed.

The authority, however, has no immediate plans to expand development beyond its current renewal program.

According to state law, Jekyll Island must leave 65 percent of its land undeveloped. Developed land is acreage with buildings, as well as roads, bike paths, ponds and any other parcels of land that have been altered, said Jones Hooks, executive director of the authority.

Recently, the percentage of the island that has been developed had been called into question after state Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, said a graduate student at the University of Georgia had conducted a mapping study which found that slightly more than 35 percent of the island had already been developed.

The student was using a different definition for what is considered the mean high water mark that is used to indicate usable land, said the student's professor, Thomas Jordan, associate director with the Center for Remote Sensing and Mapping Science in the Department of Geography at the University of Georgia.

Worries had also been raised that Linger Longer Communities' planned beach village would exceed the limitations of undeveloped land. The beach village, though, will be built in the existing footprints of other structures.

Aside from the less than two acres that will be used for an access road in the development, the beach village will not change the percent of developed land, said Bob Krueger, chairman of the authority board.

Including the 1.87 acres tagged for development's road in the Linger Longer beach village master plan, the island will have developed close to 1,398 acres, or a little more than 33 percent, Foster said. Using Lidar mapping equipment, the latest technology available, the Thomas and Hutton firm assessed the amount of acreage available for development and updated delineation lines that had shifted since the borders were last indicated in the island's 1996 master plan.

The firm found that sand from the north end had eroded and shifted toward the south end. That shift had little to do with development and was a natural occurrence.
"These physical changes are from Mother Nature, from erosion on one end and accretion on the other," Foster said. "Part of the reason the delineation land also changed was because now we have more modern technology that can better outline where the lines should be."

Also at the meeting Wednesday, Mike Hodges, chairman of the authority finance committee, reported that the authority had a 3 percent decrease in revenue compared to the same month in 2007; it also had a 7 percent increase in operating expenses for the same month the year prior.

“Who knew nature could turn a profit on its own merits?”

One of the most outstanding themes in the hundreds of visitor comments sent to IPJI is that Jekyll’s unique character, natural beauty and abundance of wildlife are its most enduring draws. No wonder the Park’s 1996 Master Plans states that, “Jekyll Island’s principal attraction is the accessibility it provides to an unspoiled microcosm of the coastal environment. It is this unique opportunity upon which all future plans for the island’s vitality should be based.” This concept was expressed beautifully in a letter published in the April 24 edition of The Brunswick News. The letter, which appears below, speaks to how Jekyll’s unique qualities and natural splendor continue to draw visitors to the Island, even in this difficult economic time.

Letters to the editor - Voices of one community

The Brunswick News

Enterprises show the value of going 'green'
April 24, 2009

The Jekyll Island Campground and Sea Turtle Center deserve praise and congratulations for revenue performance on behalf of the Jekyll Island Authority, as reported in The News April 21. This success reflects the trends of actual ecotourism, and the public's desire for authentic natural experience.
Both of these enterprises require little infrastructure and minimal costs to operate and have no grand facades or lists of amenities. Somehow, though, they are the only entities that "surpassed expectations" (made money) for the Authority.

A "green" light should be going off in the minds of the JIA board, perhaps suggesting that another campground with even fewer amenities than those offered by the fine facility on the north end (tent only?) should be opened right away.

I love Jekyll Island, and urge the JIA to summon the courage to offer Jekyll to the world as the jewel it is. Maritime forests, unspoiled beaches, sea turtles, fishing, world-class birding, biking, camping, relaxation and peace. Who knew nature could turn a profit on its own merits?

Charles Maley
St. Simons Island

The Brunswick News
July 15, 2009

Raising parking fees on Jekyll is bad move

The Jekyll Island Authority has done something a bit unusual. When everyone is pinching pennies, doing what they can to stretch every dollar, it is raising the cost of getting onto the island state park. As of Aug. 1, the parking fee will ascend to $5, a $2 increase from what it is today.

Board members made several attempts to justify raising the fee. One, it has been some time since it was raised, they said. That occasion dates back to 1999.

Second, the increase was recommended by the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Chris Clark, via telephone during Monday's board meeting. A member of the authority's board of directors, Clark thought it would be a good gesture since other state parks have been forced, due to economic stress, to adopt fee hikes. That includes Stone Mountain State Park in the Atlanta area.

And this after the taxpayers of the state just guaranteed loans of $25 million for infrastructure improvements that will facilitate new development on Jekyll Island that Georgians will see, if all goes well, in 2012. Now, the board might be asked, how many state parks are getting that?

That's not all Jekyll Island is getting from taxpayers. It's also receiving thousands in sales tax dollars that are generated in Glynn County - tax dollars that could be used for city and county projects instead of state projects. That's something else no other state park in Georgia is getting.

Jekyll Island is feeling the sting of a weak economy. It believes the $5 entrance fee is necessary to offset its losses.

But why should it take the one step - raise prices - that every economist on the planet earth would recommend against when business is bad?

Increases do not stimulate sales. They decrease sales. And, unfortunately, Jekyll Island may see the same. People may still travel to the state park, but they will be even more frugal than they are now with how much more money they spend while there.

This was bad timing and - it may prove through lost business - a bad move on the part of the board of the Jekyll Island Authority.

This is coastal Georgia, the population of which may approach 500,000 if including Savannah.

This is not Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta, population over 5 million and climbing.

Jekyll residents eye plans

The Brunswick News
July 20, 2009

Walking through the historic district on a recent morning, Jekyll Island residents David and Mindy Egan were greeted by visitors from Oklahoma who had stopped on the quaint island park for a brief vacation.

Looking around, the couple expressed to the Egans that their island home was unlike any beach resort they had ever visited. But when the tourists learned of the revitalization project planned for the state-park island, they voiced true concern.

"These visitors, they said Jekyll was the most beautiful place they had ever seen, that it was so peaceful," said Mindy Egan, vice president of the Jekyll Island Citizens Association and cofounder of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island. "When we gave them a fair rundown of what was planned to change, though, they said they might not want to come back. That was just heartbreaking to me."

Many citizens on Jekyll and Jekyll frequenters have fears that, should development alter the face of their island, it will do more damage than good, Mindy Egan said.

While the Egans agreed that the recently presented master plan from HHCP architecture firm was a breath of fresh air, they still had worries that congestion, traffic and over-development might create a Jekyll Island they don't recognize.

Island resident Frank Mirasola feels the same way. He worries that the plans the board has drawn up are far out of step with the character of the island. Jekyll has long held a reputation for being a natural retreat with steady but limited traffic and tourists, not a busy beach resort, he said.

"People come here because it is not that cookie cutter beach location," said Mirasola, past-president of the citizens association. "It is not that we do not want development. We just don't want as much development as they are calling for."

Although the plans have been tweaked and scaled back, some citizens of Jekyll Island continue to question the authority board and its model for revitalizing the place they call home.

Originally slated to be a $340 million investment, the private-public project was cut by one-third in October, to become a $120 million beach village. Since then, Eric Garvey, spokesman for the Jekyll Island Authority, says he has heard less negative feedback and witnessed an overwhelming acceptance of the new model for the village and town center.

"Since the revisions of the beach plan was approved, we have had extremely positive response from Jekyll citizens," Garvey said.

True, the Egans said, the new plans calls for a smaller project and is more in line with what the island residents had wanted. But nonetheless, the model, as now planned, could be a shock to guests.
"We're happy it was scaled back. But when they drive onto the island and see five and six story high-rises, it will freak people out," Mindy Egan said. "People do not come to Jekyll Island for a beach village. They don't come here to go shopping."

Should the plans be built as designed, citizens worry that the island will not be able to sustain that much growth. Traffic would become a nightmare and overcrowding would certainly be an issue, said David Egan.
Earlier this year, the authority board hired Bleakly Advisory Group consulting firm to conduct an impact study regarding such issues. That study found that the island could sustain the development and growth as currently planned, but some citizens question the land acreage used to find the island carrying capacity.

By law, only 35 percent of the state-park can be developed, with 65 percent remaining untouched. The advisory group failed to take this into consideration when they conducted the study, meaning that when development beyond the beach village comes to fruition, the limited space on the island will be filled to the brim, David Egan said.

"We have real concerns about the build out, and what they board is planning to do next," David Egan said.
Garvey, however, says that all the planned growth will take place in the footprint of already developed areas. There will be no new cleared spaces, he said.

"We can only build on 35 percent of the island, and we are not changing that," Garvey said.

Michael Chatham, vice president of HHCP, said the new plans may alter the face of the island and rework roadways, but it will not create new developed areas. All plans are in the footsteps of already developed ares, Chatham said.

In the past, island resident Gloria Zocchi had her reservations about how revitalization would play out. She saw that authority board members were not taking resident concerns to heart, and were trotting along by their own set agenda. After seeing the recently retooled plan, though, she said she feels that board members are letting down their guard and are working more with residents.

"The plan looks good, and they are hearing us a little more," Zocchi said. "But we still have worries about how all this traffic and parking will play out."

Beyond the beach village, island residents worry that the authority board has not given attention to the promised conservation plan.

"They are going about this in the wrong order," David Egan said. "We have been asking for months when will this conservation plan be ready. We are always told that it is a low priority."
The conservation plan is a "gigantic document and it takes time to get this worked out," Garvey said, adding that the plan is certainly a high priority.

Summer dredging killed sea turtles

The Brunswick News
October 30, 2009
By Mary Landers

A harbor dredging operation carried out despite concerns from wildlife officials killed at least six loggerhead sea turtles in September - two in Savannah and four in Brunswick.

A possible seventh turtle was killed in Savannah, but recovered remains have not yet been confirmed as being a sea turtle.

The Army Corps of Engineers dredged the entrances to both the Savannah and Brunswick harbors for a total of 15 days using most of $6.8 million in federal stimulus funds meted out for the project. For both operations, the corps employed hopper dredges, whose suction arms vacuum up silt and send it through giant rotating blades.

The corps usually avoids such summertime dredging precisely for the protection of turtles, and precautions were taken to minimize turtle deaths in these cases. A shrimp trawler sailed ahead of the dredge to clear the path of turtles, and each dredge's drag head was equipped with a cow catcher-like device meant to deflect turtles. A paid observer on board regularly checked for turtle remains.

Those measures reduced the turtle death toll to the federal limit allowed for this particular dredging, a limit the corps successfully petitioned to increase mid-project. But they weren't perfect.

"Seven loggerheads in 15 days is not a stellar performance," said Mark Dodd, a sea turtle researcher and biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Dodd also is concerned the data used to justify the demonstration project was faulty.

"The data suggested there were no takes in the summer, but they didn't have projects in the summer," he said. "They had beach renourishment, not dredging in the channel."

'Shocking' deaths

Before the operation began, the DNR was able to get corps officials to back off a plan to dredge from June through August, the height of the loggerhead nesting season. That lessened the chance of killing adult females, the most valuable turtles in terms of the threatened species' overall health. Genetic analysis failed to match any of the killed turtles with turtles known to have nested on Georgia beaches.

But September may be when turtles are most abundant in the area, because that's when migrating turtles are coming through, Dodd said.

The corps discontinued summertime dredging after about 40 sea turtles were killed in the summer of 1991. Maintenance dredging shifted to winter when turtles are less abundant.

Loggerheads currently are listed as threatened on the endangered species list, though a review is under way to see if the northern population, which nests from Georgia through the Carolinas, should be uplisted to endangered.

Dave Allison, senior campaign director for the non-profit conservation group Oceana, which has pushed for the uplisting, called the dredging project a "perverse" use of stimulus funds.

"The killing of sea turtles and putting them at further risk of extinction just to pump money through the system is at the very least unfortunate," he said. "I can understand the desire to keep dredge operators employed and keep money going through the stimulus. But there simply is no real justification for this kind of carnage."

Allison finds it "shocking" that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approved the loss of seven turtles for this project.

"If seven sea turtles were taken in two weeks in a number of fisheries in this country, we would be looking at closing the entire fishery," he said. "That rate of take is really unacceptable."

More research

Corps officials want a larger window for dredging because there are few hopper dredges available, making them difficult to schedule, said Linda Morrison, chief of the operations division for the Savannah district of the corps.

Pending further research, summertime dredging may go forward next year, Morrison said. The corps is funding some satellite tags to help determine where loggerheads travel and when.

"Maybe another month would be better," she said.

Turtles seem attracted to the cool mud of newly dredged trenches and so are especially vulnerable when the hopper dredge doubles back to smooth out its work, said Steve Calver, sea turtle coordinator for the Savannah district of the corps.

Future summertime dredging may instead use a drag beam - basically a large iron bar - to level out the bed. DNR and corps officials, however, are concerned the drag beam could smash turtles, so it may require a turtle deflecting device.

"If it'll help minimize turtle deaths, we're all for it," Calver said. "We really don't have an option not to dredge. There are too many jobs at stake. We have to figure out the best way to do it from a cost standpoint and an environmental standpoint."

Jekyll deal victim of economy

The Brunswick News


The Jekyll Island Authority is promising to complete its planned beachfront redevelopment largely on schedule after it parted ways with its private developer Tuesday over how quickly work can begin in a sour economy.

The authority and Linger Longer Communities said in separate prepared statements that they have mutually terminated negotiations on a final agreement for the $100 million project.

The authority said it will now seek multiple developers to build various pieces of the complex of two hotels, retail space and a new or renovated convention center that Linger Longer had planned to deliver as a package.

The authority said all but one part of the projects - vacation condominiums - will be completed by the end of 2012. No work has been started.

The breakup of the Jekyll Island Authority and Linger Longer marriage will not affect Great Dunes Park, the 20-acre site north of the convention center that the authority broke ground on Monday.

The authority said the decision to suspend the contract with Linger Longer was mutual. More than likely, it's a decision that will become permanent when the authority board meets Monday, officials said.

Eric Garvey, chief communications officer for the Jekyll Island Authority that operates the state-owned island, said Linger Longer was unable to guarantee completion by early 2012 of a new convention center and Beach Village project of shopping and an economy-class hotel and a mid-scale hotel.

Linger Longer Communities blamed the economic recession for its inability to meet the 2012 completion date.

"Our decision to release the authority from its commitment to us was due to the uncertainty of the economic environment and the difficulty that this uncertainty imposes on a workable development schedule," Mercer Reynolds, chairman of Linger Longer's parent, The Reynolds Cos., said in a prepared statement.

In the face of a starting date to begin construction in January, Atlanta-based Linger Longer had sought a contract change to give it a two-year delay in beginning construction.

Jekyll Island officials were unwilling to grant it, and said they would follow the blueprint for developing facilities that Linger Longer had laid out after it was selected in 2007 to give a makeover to a prime portion of the island.

The island's aging motels and outdated meeting halls have been blamed for tourism falling from a peak of 2.1 million visitors a decade ago to 1.49 million last year.

Garvey, who last week said the authority and Linger Longer were making headway on a final contract, said Tuesday the authority was unwilling to budge on the timetable for completion.

"We needed to have a firm time line that would bring together that opening by 2012," Garvey said. "Because of the uncertainty that exists out there, they were unable to agree to that."

The authority remains optimistic and said it is committed to finishing all the projects on time, with the exception of the vacation-ownership project, which was already planned to be completed at a later date.

The authority said it will contract out each project individually.

"By breaking up the pieces, it gives us more sustainability to find a partner," Garvey said. "We have not made contact with developers yet, but we are confident that we will be moving forward with the project."

The $50 million in public bonds that have already been secured for the revitalization have been set aside to fund the state-owned portion of the project. The authority is also expecting at least $120 million in private-sector investment funds.

"We will have retail operations in temporary facilities starting in the third quarter (July-September) and we must show a definite time line," Jones Hooks, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority, said in a prepared statement.

"We also must bring new hotel lodging units on line as soon as the new convention center is ready. These and other circumstances have dictated this decision."

Hooks said the economy has created much uncertainty.

"In my 30 plus years in community and economic development I have not seen things so bad," he said.

Article Insert:

Candidates for governor applaud severance of partnership

Two gubernatorial candidates cheered the announcement Tuesday that Linger Longer Communities and the Jekyll Island Authority have suspended their partnership in the proposed revitalization of the island’s waterfront.

David Poythress, a Democrat who has announced intentions to run for governor in 2010, called the suspended partnership a “great victory for all Georgians who saw that this backroom deal was not good for Jekyll Island or the citizens of Georgia.”

Eric Garvey, spokesman for the Jekyll Island Authority , said the revitalization of Jekyll Island should not be apolitical issue.

“I understand Mr. Poythress wanting to make it one and if he wants to claim victory, so be it,” Garvey said, “But his position was unfounded. There was no “backroom deal” the decision to suspend negotiations was based more on timing and economic conditions, ah his public statements had nothing to do with it.”

Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, a Republican candidate for governor in 2010, has opposed the partnership agreement between the Jekyll Island Authority and Linger Longer from the get-go and was glad to hear it has been suspended.

Chapman hs contended all along that the state could have gotten a better deal.

He said Tuesday that the suspension was an example of everyday people working together and influencing the government to make the right choice.

“This deal never did make economic sense from the beginning,” he said. “I’m glad that the JIA realized that it was flawed and did what was in the best interest of the people.”

The also said he concurs with the proposed idea to break up the partnership among individual opportunities for developers.

“I don’t know what took so long for them to catch up, but the end result was the good part,” Chapman said.

Erika Capek
The Brunswick News