Private Management of Jekyll’s Key Amenities:
A Good Deal for the Public?
In the January 2nd Brunswick News article, “Jekyll Says It’s in Control,” the main premise put forward by JIA spokesmen is that there is no reason for concern about Linger Longer Jekyll—a company owned by the Reynolds family which specializes in building high-end resort communities— being given the right to manage key attractions on Jekyll Island, including the golf course complex, because the Authority will still have control over any properties that Linger Longer might be allowed to operate, and that there are no plans, for now, to turn park operations over to Linger Longer.
JIA executive director Jones Hooks, in an effort to further decrease concern over a Jekyll Island managed by the likes of the Reynolds family, says that “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.”
Additional comfort for those who are “needlessly worried” about Linger Longer managing Jekyll Island State Park’s key attractions was offered by JIA marketing director Eric Garvey, who 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. We are held to certain guidelines and restrictions that a private company does not have.”
Let’s take a close look at each of the JIA’s attempts to reassure people who are worried over the direction Jekyll’s amenities might head under the terms of the Revitalization Partnering Agreement (RPA).
1. “The JIA board remains in control”
• It is true that the RPA gives the JIA board the final say on park operations, but does this mean that Jekyll’s key amenities may not be upscaled under the influence of a possible “Reynoldization” of the park?
• After all, board members are on record saying that they will not attempt to regulate the profits of private developers, so how on earth can the public trust that the board will actually exercise any control over Linger Longer’s pricing of key amenities?
• Furthermore, despite the fact that Georgia law requires Jekyll’s facilities to be available to people of average income, the word “affordable” does not even appear in the 70-page RPA.
• After months of public protest and in response to the urgings of former board member Ed Boshears, last year the board finally issued an “affordability policy” with regard to Jekyll’s lodgings, but, in stating that Jekyll will have “a substantial number of affordable accommodations,” the policy is so general that it’s virtually meaningless.
• Meaningless as the lodging policy is, the board has no such policy with regard to park amenities.
• How, then are we to believe that the Authority sees an affordable Jekyll as a high priority, and that it will exercise its right to control the pricing of key amenities under Linger Longer’s management?
2. “Linger Longer does not want to ‘rebrand’ Jekyll”
• In the absence of specific contract terms that would help to assure an affordable Jekyll, we are left with the option of trusting that Linger Longer has no interest in “accomplishing an exclusive Jekyll,” to use Mr. Hooks’ words.
• Forgetting the company’s track record of high-end development elsewhere, Linger Longer’s original plan for a Jekyll town center—which was dropped largely because the northern half of the project turned out to be within the jurisdictional area of the Shore Protection Act and because the economic slowdown diminished the market for the high-priced stuff Linger Longer hoped to build—gives cause for concern over the direction Jekyll may head under Linger Longer management.
• After all, that plan, which both the JIA and Linger Longer defended rigorously for over a year, had plenty of Reynolds-type components, including condos selling for $775,000 and a huge upscale hotel offering the highest average daily room rates in Jekyll’s history.
3. Linger Longer can make Jekyll’s key amenities more profitable
• This claim, along with the statement that the JIA is “held to certain guidelines and restrictions that a private company does not have,” actually confirms rather than lessens the suspicion that a pricier Jekyll may be the result if Linger Longer has its way. Linger Longer can, for example, make Jekyll’s golf courses more profitable if it is allowed to ignore restrictions that the JIA is bound by—such as the restriction which calls for Jekyll’s facilities to be “available for people of average income”—but what kind of “control” would the JIA board be exercising if it were to allow a private company to do what the JIA is forbidden to do by law?
• The obvious truth is that Jekyll’s amenities can be made more profitable only by raising prices and/or reducing costs, with the hope that the reformed amenities can be marketed in a way that will still make them attractive to Jekyll’s visitors.
• Higher prices for golf and mandatory use of a golf cart, for example, may produce greater profitability, assuming that Jekyll can be rebranded to draw the kind of clientele that can afford high-end golf.
• There is, of course, another way that Jekyll’s golf course complex can be made more profitable, and that is by eliminating nine or eighteen holes of golf to make room for a condo community, such as the one that Linger Longer had hoped to build in the town center.
• Imagine the revenue that the JIA could gather from the annual lease fee charged to several hundred condo owners living on the site of the former Oleander Golf Course, for example.
• Imagine too the profitability of such a venture for Linger Longer, given that it would not have to pay a penny for the land that those condos would eat up, and could get away with giving the JIA just 1 percent of the gross sales for the condos, as is the case with Linger Longer’s 160 time-share units in the soon to be built Jekyll town center.
• Is golf course redevelopment a far-fetched scenario? Not really. The developer-friendly 2004 amendment of the Jekyll Island Master Plan speaks favorably about redeveloping the Oleander Golf Course as a condo/town-house community.
If the JIA really wants to ease fears about where Jekyll’s amenities may be heading under the RPA, it could say, officially and unequivocally, that Linger Longer, as a park manager, would not be allowed to disregard Jekyll’s affordability mandate, and would be prohibited from converting recreational facilities into residential property. These two simple pronouncements might help to restore some of the public trust that was squandered this past year when the JIA consistently responded to statewide criticism of the initial Linger Longer mega-town center plan with the claim that its critics are a handful of people who “oppose all change” and are “enemies of revitalization.”
In the absence of a meaningful JIA board policy that would ensure that Jekyll Island State Park’s key amenities remain affordable for people of average income, how can the public take comfort in the headline in the Brunswick News stating that “Jekyll Says It’s in Control?”