Jekyll Island opens doors on new era
The Brunswick News

Less than two years after construction began, the new Jekyll Island Convention Center will make its formal public debut Sunday, marking the completion of the largest part of the island's multi-year revitalization effort.

The convention center will officially open to the public when Gov. Nathan Deal presides over a ribbon cutting ceremony at 4 p.m. in front of the facility. Guests will be encouraged to take self-guided tours of the 128,000-square-foot facility during a reception following the ceremony.

The facility that replaces a 1960s era center that was razed to make way for it will become the center of the island's revitalization plan, which includes the completed Great Dunes Park and planned Beach Village retail center, along with the planned Hyatt Place and Westin hotels.
Jones Hooks, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority which operates the island state park, says he expects the new convention center to draw groups of conventioneers that may have left the island for other areas.

"It becomes the anchor. It becomes the cornerstone. It also becomes the leverage. It's no secret in these economic times that we've been challenged," Hooks said. "Now, with the new convention center, we see it leveraging much additional private investment on Jekyll Island."

Reaction to the new center has been widely positive, Hooks said, from island residents, visitors and potential conventioneers. The building's design draws from the surrounding environment, using colors of green and blue to reflect the adjacent ocean and maritime forests, and features 7,800 square feet of oceanfront meeting space.

"We like to say we've created 'awesome' in 18 months, because everyone who goes through the center their reaction is, 'wow' 'awesome' 'amazing' or 'more than I anticipated,'" Hooks said.

Phillis George, director of service learning for College of Coastal Georgia, said she is overwhelmed with what she has seen and hopes to bring a service learning conference to the facility in the future.

"There was careful planning and that played to every single detail, and what that does is places us at the forefront of creating convention spaces that are viable and forward thinking," George said. "I really see it as a superb gathering place. It's obviously a beautiful gathering place. It's the embodiment of a communal gathering place."

Not only is the center that had an informal opening with the College of Coastal Georgia graduation May 5 a uniquely designed meeting center, George also expects it to be a large economic force for the community. The center is estimated to have a $40 million economic impact with more than 200 meetings and conventions booked through 2016.

"It is going to be a huge revenue generator. It's certainly an attractive space and I think conference-goers nationally look for places that are aesthetically pleasing and that are relaxing," George said. "The Jekyll Island conference center does that and so much more."

For Allyson Jackson, manager of the center, the grand opening hits close to home. She has fond memories of graduating from high school and attending her junior and senior proms in the old Jekyll Island Convention Center's Atlantic Hall, referred to occasionally by locals as the Aquarama because of its proximity to the building that once housed a swimming pool.

"All of our wonderful memories are here, the sunrise services ... the sun rising over the ocean," Jackson said. "The Aquarama is gone but the fact of the matter is they just chewed up the concrete. We're on that foundation and we walk among the Aquarama every day."

That's why it was important for Jackson to travel from her job in Salt Lake City to oversee the operation of the new center with her company, SMG Worldwide Entertainment and Convention Venue Management that is under contract to manage the new facility. Seeing the facility come to reality is an "amazing gift," Jackson said.

"These are my roots," Jackson said. "This is why I wanted to come back."

But come Monday, the time for celebration will be over, as the first convention, the Georgia Rural Water Association, will kick off its activities.

"We're ready to get beyond the (grand opening) and get on with business," Jackson said.

Opening day

Gov. Nathan Deal will preside over the grand opening ceremony of the Jekyll Island Convention Center at 4 p.m. Sunday. A public reception with refreshments, entertainment by the U.S. Navy Band and self-guided tours will follow immediately.