To: Senator Jeff Chapman
From: H. Ken Cordell, PhD
Subject: Response for Request to Review Results from the Development Impact Study by the Bleakly Advisory Group for Jekyll Island State Park

September 25, 2008

Introduction

On September 15 of this year the Bleakly Advisory Group (BAG) presented an update of findings from its study regarding further development of Jekyll Island State Park. The presentation prepared to overview study findings was impressive. It was presented to the Jekyll Island Authority Board at a meeting on Jekyll Island on September 15. The study was commissioned by the Jekyll Island Authority. The stated overall purpose of this study is to quantify the economic, transportation, visitation, cost and revenue effects of proposed development. The emphasis of the study as indicated by the conclusion presented was to identify revenue potentials from further development of the Park.

Development beyond the existing conditions on the Island appears to be controversial. The Jekyll Island Authority has developed a list of improvement projects the Authority indicates is needed along with and in support of proposed development. The Jekyll Island Authority has linked with a private corporation to develop and market a town center, condominiums, beach cottages, time shares and other commercial properties. Debate over undertaking this proposed commercial development and the proposed Jekyll Island Authority improvement projects has ranged from the Georgia Legislature to citizen groups and others throughout the State. Divergent opinions over the future of the state park makes understanding the BAG study and its findings especially important.

The Bleakly Advisory Group study is understood to have as its primary purpose prediction of the future stream of revenues likely and/or possible if further development were to take place. The possibility that further development may impact visitor experiences and the Island’s marsh and dry land ecosystems is acknowledged, but not directly addressed by the Bleakly Group study. Thus far, potential impacts on visitor experiences or natural resources has apparently not been directly addressed.

It is a stated goal of state parks in Georgia and typically of all park systems that meaningful visitor experiences and sustainable natural resource stewardship are the primary goals of park management. It is from this perspective, i.e., parks are managed for visitor experiences and resource stewardship, that this review of the BAG study was undertaken. It is hoped that the observations offered herein will be helpful in advancing consideration of the future of Jekyll Island State Park.

This review is organized to first provide a reference framework helpful in examining the development impact study and its reported update results. Next the impact study is briefly overviewed with the aim of identifying its primary focus and general approach. Third, observations concerning the Bleakly Advisory Group study are offered. Finally, a few conclusions are offered that hopefully will be helpful.

VERP, A Good Reference Framework

The National Park Service has developed and adopted a park assessment system named Visitor Experience and Resource Protection (VERP). Implementing VERP calls for identifying indicators that measure the effects of management and different levels of visitation on the quality of visitor experiences and on park resources (USDI National Park Service, 1997). As stated in the Handbook, VERP is based in part on the logic of the LAC (Limits of Acceptable Change) process. The LAC way of thinking is that the fundamental challenge of visitor use management is defining complementary visitor experience opportunities and resource conditions, and then determining the extent to which recreational access can be accommodated. This logic and the ordering of its definitional and then determination stages allows managers to recognize that unrestricted access, while a valid goal, is not one which can always be accommodated in light of the equally valid goals of meeting experience expectations of visitors and resource protection. (The Visitor Experience and Resource Protection (VERP) Framework: A Handbook for Planners and Managers, September 1997. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service Center.)

As referenced in the VERP process, all parks have a carrying capacity. Carrying capacity accounts for the quality both of the park resources and of the visitor experience. Park resources as referenced in the VERP Handbook encompass all biophysical, aesthetic, and cultural elements and features. Visitor experiences refers to meeting visitor expectations, and the attendant perceptions, feelings, and reactions a person has while visiting a park. As it applies to parks, visitor carrying capacity is defined as “the type and level of visitor use that can be accommodated while sustaining acceptable resource and social conditions that complement the purpose of a park.” Under this definition carrying capacity is interpreted primarily as a prescription of resource and social conditions, and secondarily as a prescription for the appropriate numbers of people.

VERP is intended to provide a logic and rationale for making decisions. It calls for thorough documentation of the rationale of all such decisions made during the course of developing and implementing VERP elements in a park planning. Documentation of rationale is particularly important when managers need to make controversial decisions, such as limiting visitor use or increasing development. This rationale should focus primarily on optimization of measure of resource integrity and visitor satisfaction and benefits. As taken from the VERP Handbook, VERP is composed of 9 elements:

Element 1: Assemble an Interdisciplinary Project Team. Team members should include various backgrounds and expertise, aided by expert consultants who may include agency personnel, other agencies, stakeholders, and research institutions. Expertise may include natural resource specialists, cultural resource specialists, interpretive specialists, natural resource scientists, social scientists, geographic information system specialists, public involvement specialists, landscape architects, and community planners.

Element 2: Develop a Public Involvement Strategy. As with any planning, the public must be involved from the beginning. A public involvement strategy should be prepared early in the process. Public involvement helps the agency better understand the values people hold in relation to park resources and visitor experiences, and is critical to creating a plan that can be successfully implemented. Underlying all fundamental planning decisions are competing values. Planning is the compromise between competing values and understanding public values enables informed planning decisions. Involving the public helps a planning team to learn about public concerns, issues, expectations, and values; educate people about the planning process, learn about the values other people hold about the same resources and visitor experience, the acceptability of proposed indicators, standards, and management actions, better define the range of alternatives, build support among local publics, visitors, Congress, and others for implementing the plan. Public land planning principles was the subject of a recent paper comparing national forest and Jekyll Island planning approaches (Cordell, 2008).

Element 3: Develop Statements of Park Purpose, Significance, and Primary Interpretive Themes; Identify Planning Constraints. Descriptions of purpose and significance are fundamental to park planning. All subsequent VERP elements must build upon and be consistent with them. This element may already have been developed in previous planning efforts. It is critical that they be clearly articulated and understood by all interests from management to interested public.

Element 4: Analyze Park Resources and the Existing Visitor Use. The objective of this element is to describe and understand thoroughly the extant park resources, visitors, and visitor experience. A thorough analysis should be conducted to include visitor data and experience measurements.

Element 5: Describe a Potential Range of Visitor Experiences and Resource Conditions. Potential zones are described by different desired visitor experience opportunities and resource conditions consistent with the park purpose and significance. The range of conditions describe the appropriate kinds and levels of activity, development, and management.

Elements 6 through 9 (not covered in detail here) include prescriptive management zoning, specifying indicators and standards for monitoring, monitoring resource and social conditions, and instituting management action aimed at visitor experiences and resource protection. VERP defines visitor experiences as the perceptions, feelings, and reactions a person has while visiting a park.

The Development Scenario Analysis Described by the Bleakly Advisory Group

The following is verbatim the language in the Bleakly Advisory Group document entitled, “Proposal and Methodology to Assist the Jekyll Island Authority in Preparing an Analysis of the Visitor Experience on the Island”. The lead paragraph of this document is:

“Having secured a revitalization partner and with planned redevelopment projects in the pipeline, a key question for Jekyll Island now is: "What is a sustainable level of future development that both protects the island's environmental resources and delivers the type of visitor experience that is expected of "Georgia's Jewel"? The proposed analysis will produce three useful products that will help the JIA to objectively predict the effects of already planned redevelopment, while defining a range of appropriate long-range future growth scenarios that will not overburden the island's resources or be detrimental to the visitor experience.”

In the title and in this lead paragraph the emphasis is on two things. First, further future development seems to be assumed for Jekyll Island. Second, concern is expressed that the State Park delivers the type of visitor experience expected. These two assumed conditions are not necessarily compatible, although they could be. Task 4 as described in the methods document is as follows:

“Measure the fiscal/cost implications of these projections on the JIA's operations. As part of Task 2, the analysis will produce a forecasting model that will identify certain benchmarks of growth and development that may trigger need for major public improvements on the island. The model will include a module that can be used to assist the Authority in predicting the timing and potential cost of these investments and, if necessary, model alternatives to delay/mitigate those costs. This information will be useful for future business planning and will assist the Authority in maintaining adequate revenue streams and negotiating future development agreements that are financially beneficial to the island. This model can also become an important tool to developing a more detailed business plan for financing future public improvements.”

This task seems to be the primary emphasis of the study, i.e., to analyze and predict future cost and revenue streams associated with growth and development of the Island. Financial benefits (interpreted to mean revenues in excess of costs) in the future are apparently associated with negotiating development agreements and improvements. It is not clear what is meant by “public improvements”.

Observations About the Bleakly Group Study Summary

From the perspective that public parks are established to meet visitor experience expectations (perceptions, feelings, and reactions a person has while visiting a park) and to protect park resources, and using the VERP model as a good example of a system that focuses on visitor experiences and resource protection, the following observations and suggestions are offered regarding the Bleakly Advisory Group study and report.

1. The study team represents some, but apparently not a full compliment of expertise. The BAG study plan identifies financial, planning, engineering and transportation professionals as needed to assess the impacts of growth projections on the island and its infrastructure systems. The BAG has taken the lead for preparing visitation and revenue growth forecasts, including analysis if visitor experiences, and preparing reports and presentations.

Comment: There is a wealth of expertise at Georgia’s universities, and in state and federal governments, some of the best in the nation. In that visitor experiences (in the context of social conditions) and resource integrity (across the island’s ecosystems) are the primary foci of park management, it seems the Authority and its contracted consultants could benefit by active engagement of natural resource specialists, cultural resource specialists, interpretive specialists, natural resource scientists, social scientists, public involvement specialists, and community planners. These diverse specialties can greatly enhance any study and subsequent decision making. This is especially the case if greater visitation and development are being considered on an island with fragile ecosystems and a long-established visitor base who have built expectations of visit experiences on the island.

2. The BAG development impact study and associated other planning underway have not to this time seemed to provide sufficient opportunities for active participation by the general public, interested external professionals, interest groups or visitors to participate in defining future island options, future visitation levels, or desired visitor experiences. The 2004 Update to the 1996 Master Plan called for inclusion of a public participation process in the Island master planning to gain further insights into preferred options for the Island’s future. Widely accepted and adopted public land planning principles suggest that greater public participation in all phases of Jekyll Island planning will be highly beneficial. There appears still to be significant opportunity for full engagement of all publics in interpretation and evaluation of the BAG study, in development of scenario selections (across a full range of options), in selecting impact indicators and measurement approaches (biophysical and social), in forecasting Jekyll Island’s future, and in reviewing proposals associated with different future scenarios. This can include identifying and defining criteria for social, economic, and environmental sustainability, as well as for sustainability of quality visitor experiences.

Comment: A principal means for engaging the public is through application of surveying. Surveying various publics and visitors is widely accepted and used as a means of making contact with citizens, visitors, or special interests. Most ordinary Georgians cannot attend meetings and most will not have notification of opportunities for public participation. Surveys take the issues to the citizen in their homes or during a visit and can be conducted by mail, phone, in-person, on-site and via the internet. An overview of a few recent surveys found concerning Jekyll Island can be helpful. Based on the composition of these data, it seems a statewide survey of Georgians and Jekyll Island visitors and other interests is needed. The public input summarized below suggests improvements to hotels, the convention center, shops and restaurants is the preferred scenario for sustaining quality Jekyll visitor experiences.

Survey via internet site, of visitors, of convention goers, and of others on the Island  (by permission of the IPJI site manager--3,517 responses up through 12 June, 2007)
  Question 1 -update existing hotels, shops and restaurants:
Yes = 3,171
No =     346
Question 2 - Build a new convention center with an adjacent hotel
Yes = 2,589
  No =    928
Question 3: Create a town square setting of shops and restaurants
Yes = 1,598 but, with condos excluded
Yes = 360 with some condos
Yes = 19 with 1,000 condos
No =  1,540 no town center

Survey via internet site and administered to visitors and convention goers (by permission of the IPJI site manager--1120 respondents/as of 16 July 2007)
Question 1. Town Square Center:  559 - yes     561 – no
Question 2. Include Condos in Town Square Center:
   none - 988
   few dozen - 108
   hundred - 22
   thousand – 2
Question 3. New Convention Center:    531 - yes    589 – no
Question 4. Privatization: 98 - yes    1,022 – no
Question 5. Increase percentage of high-end hotels: 169 - yes   951 - no

c. Linger Longer Communities constructed a physical model of the proposed development of Jekyll Island as of the fall of 2007 and placed it on display at the Villa Ospo offices of the Jekyll Island Authority. From late fall 2007 to late winter 2008, visitors were invited to view the model and make written comments. These comments were analyzed using qualitative analysis methods. The total number of comments analyzed was 272. By permission of the analyst, the percentage breakdown by category of these comments was:
1. Support for proposed plan/model: 5.5 %
2.Neutral or unable to ascertain: 22%
3.Opposed to proposed plan/model: 72.4%

d. A fourth survey involved selected residents of Jekyll Island done for the Park’s Master Plan Update in 2004. Twelve potential development sites were identified and residents were asked if they would support or oppose development for each site. Generally the residents indicated upgrading of hotels, the convention center, and shopping area as acceptable and supported. They indicted that development of the area north of the convention center, the campground, the soccer field, water slide area and golf courses not acceptable.

e. 2006 Jekyll Island Authority survey of visitors:
Question 23 How would you compare Jekyll Island to other seashore destinations? (78 percent charming, quiet and relaxing)
Question 25 Which statement best describes you feeling about the natural environment of the island? (52 percent protected through limited development, and 43 percent well managed and maintained)
Question 27 Which choice describes your feeling about the future of Jekyll Island? (17 percent leave as is, 8 percent remove vacated buildings, 50 percent limit development to existing sites, 18 percent limit new development to an increase of no more than 20%, 5 percent ease restriction on development, 2 percent all private ownership)

3. The National Park Service’s VERP approach calls for consideration of a full range conditions and visitor experiences within the primary purposes and significance of the park under consideration. The opportunity exists to do the same with Jekyll Island. The primary future scenarios considered in the BAG study focused only on development beyond current conditions, and on the revenues and added costs such development would generate. The range of development scenarios considered were apparently based on a Cooper Carry estimate of the upper limits of potential growth.

Comment: Given public input thus far, its seems highly possible to add other scenarios to the alternatives being considered. There seems to be a need and an opportunity to include in this broader range of future scenarios one that would emphasize no new development plus letting the beach migrate naturally as north to south erosion continues (other than rebuilding hotels) to one emphasizing high-end resort development. Based on overviews in the 2004 Master Plan Update and on the 2006 Park Conservation Plan, Jekyll Island is admired and stands as significant for its naturalness and support of wildlife. As well, Jekyll Island is apparently unique for its lack of island-wide development. Greater public participation would aid in identifying this wider range of future scenarios.

4. Carrying capacity is a critical concept in VERP Handbook and to other public agencies. As referenced in the VERP process, all parks have a carrying capacity. Carrying capacity accounts for the integrity of a park’s resources and for the quality of visitor experiences. Park resources as referenced in the VERP Handbook encompass all biophysical, aesthetic, and cultural elements and features. Visitor experience refers to meeting visitor expectations, and the attendant expectations, perceptions, feelings, and reactions a person has as a visitor to a park. As it applies to parks, visitor carrying capacity is defined as “the type and level of visitor use that can be accommodated while sustaining acceptable resource and social conditions that complement the purpose of a park.” Under this definition, carrying capacity is interpreted as a prescription of resource and social conditions, and secondarily as a prescription for the appropriate numbers of people. The BAG study concludes that the Authority can be financially sustained by reaching a visitation level of 2.65 million annually.

Comment: Carrying capacity of Jekyll Island apparently is not being addressed directly in the development planning currently underway. The Park Service’s VERP method and the LAC process that underpins it is a carrying capacity determination process. LAC highlights that the fundamental challenge of visitor use management is defining complementary visitor experience opportunities and resource conditions, and then determining the extent to which recreational access can be accommodated. Increasing annual visitation to 2.65 million may or may not be within the spectrum of acceptable social and biophysical conditions for Jekyll Island. Little direct account seems to as yet have been taken of the potential for beach or other site crowding that could occur during peak season weekends or holidays, including overload of infrastructure. Indicated is a potential increase of 30 percent during peak periods. Not only is there an opportunity to assess the effect of increased visitation on overall visitor experiences, expectations and sites, but also needing to be taken into account is the possible effect of displacing some segments of the current visitor base, including local, repeat visit and others across the socio-economic spectrum.

5. The primary orientation of the Bleakly Group’s study is toward fiduciary considerations. The overarching conclusion of the Bleakly Group’s study is that, “Jekyll Island can be financially sustained by reaching approximately 2.65 million annual visitors…” The BAG study further concludes that this level of visitation would support operating costs and eliminate deferred maintenance, pay for long-range capital improvements, and raise visitation 21 percent over the recorded historical peak. It is implied that existing and future development will be necessary to provide revenues sufficient to finance the Jekyll Island Authority projects list. The steps and analysis to get to this conclusion have many underlying assumptions, but are seen as good background information for considering future options.

Comment: The above conclusion dealt exclusively with increasing visitation to the end of creating revenues for the Jekyll Island Authority. Thus it appears that revenue generation is the principal target for proposed development and other strategies to increase visitation. The analysis supporting this conclusion does not address potential impacts of increased development, increased numbers of visitors or greater density of commercial activity on a) visitor experiences (day visitors, campers, birders, anglers, etc.), b) on the island ecosystems and wildlife (e.g., maritime forests, sea turtles, migratory birds, fish, and reptiles), c) on the uniqueness of Jekyll Island as one of the last, mostly undeveloped barrier islands, d) on the affordability of Island access and accommodations to average Georgians (local and traveling), or e) on the equity of possibly creating barriers to some current visitors while opening more opportunities to others. It is recommended that a system such as VERP be used to further analyze Jekyll Island’s future and effects of proposed actions.

6. The Bleakly Advisory Group presented an impressive financial analysis. Without detailed explanations and data at hand, it appears there may be opportunities for sustaining JIA finances across a broader spectrum of possible futures. Trends in annual operating revenue and costs through to 2008 show that revenues have exceeded costs every year except 1993. Apparently the JIA has exercised careful financial management. Projected costs associated with new development being considered include both added infrastructure expansion and major debt servicing. Debt servicing is approximately 2/3 of the total annual growth in revenues projected as needed starting in 2012 and running through 2023.

Comment: It appears that new development may be only one option for keeping revenues ahead of costs. The 2004 Master Plan Update and the BAG study identified a number of ways to increase revenues, including occupancy tax on all rentals and rooms, increased utility fees, and increased residence lease amounts. Other revenue enhancement options were identified in the 1996 Master Plan itself. A part of the BAG analysis showed an upward trend in revenue per hotel room night, but declining hotel occupancy room nights. In part, this seems to have been affected by the deterioration of hotels over the last 6 to 8 years, and certainly has been affected by the recent demolition of 3 hotels. As rebuilding of the hotels occurs and attracts more overnight island visitors, associated revenues should increase substantially in light of the data showing growth in revenue per room night since 1988. While it is concluded that per-visitor revenue has fallen from a peak in 2004, it is the same as it was in 2002, actually higher. If development other than hotels does not occur, and if other revenue sources are pursued, it appears that visitation of 2.65 million annually may not be needed as a goal, that substantial infrastructure construction and expansion could be lessened, and that debt servicing costs could be avoided. Debt servicing would be the result of bond issues starting in 2009 and is approximately 2/3 of the total annual growth in revenues projected as needed. It appears scenarios with less development could perhaps offer an opportunity to re-examine the capital expenditures projects list to identify a hierarchy of priorities and reduce or eliminate those not needed if development does not proceed.

7. A major caveat in the 2004 Master Plan Update, upon which it seems in part the BAG analysis was founded, is that major changes in the economy, in financing markets, in housing markets, in the tourism market and other pervasive determinants of demand for Jekyll Island amenities may invalidate some or many of the recommendations and projections. Data sources identified as key sources for the BAG study do not appear to include tourism market trends, Department of Transportation travel trends, housing demand and market trends, and other key indicators of dramatic changes underway in the coastal, Georgia, Southeastern, National and global economies.

Comment: The United States is in crisis. Financial markets and Wall Street are in unprecedented territory, as it the housing industry statewide and nationally. Ordinary Georgians do not have access to mortgage loans as much so as they did just 2 to 3 years ago. The Georgia State economy is in such stress currently that the Governor has ordered agencies and educational institutions to reduce spending by 6 percent. Housing demand is currently supported by persons with substantial personal capital who are upgrading their residences or speculatively buying housing. Gasoline shortages and higher prices are changing how Georgians drive and impacted vacation plans over the summer. “Staycations” are now a trend. Recent threats from storms and hurricanes have perhaps caused people to think more carefully about investing in coastal properties. As well, the demographic of the “average” Georgian is in rapid transition. Travel, tourism and recreation are demographic dependent markets. Demand is shifting as demographics shift.

These and many other trends offer interesting fields for investigation and further modeling of the demand for tourism and amenity residences on Jekyll Island. It is not well understood how these dramatic changes in the social, economic and natural systems that drive demand for coastal destinations, or Jekyll Island in particular will play out. Perhaps an option well worthy of consideration is undertaking improvements at the park in a step-wise fashion that advances the most sure investments first, other less sure ones to be considered later.

Conclusion

In the title and in the lead paragraph of the Bleakly Group study, emphasis is on two things. First, development is described as an assumed future for Jekyll Island. Second, development is considered as the means of preference for increasing revenues. There are perhaps a number of solvent other options available that would enhance revenues and/or reduce costs. One could be hotel and associated improvements, but no new residential or commercial development. In the above review text, one model for taking into account the two primary goals of park management is offered—the Visitor Experience and Resource Protection model used by the National Park Service. The primary goals of park management, whether national or state, are providing quality visitor experiences and protection of park natural and cultural resources. VERP emphasizes careful consideration of visitor management and visitor numbers within a framework of carrying capacity. Increasing visitation and development dramatically can have significant and long-lasting effects on visitor experiences and park resources. Under current market conditions and fast developing trends, it is unclear whether new development would increase visitation. If visitation were increased to the forecasted levels identified as needed to increase revenues to between $45 and $50 million by 2023, it is unclear what the overall impacts would be. Interesting opportunities exist for further study of Jekyll Island options.