Kyler: Tail wags, dog stays put

By Savannah Morning News
Created 2008-10-03 23:30

The latest efforts by consultants working for the Jekyll Island Authority are all too familiar in government programs when there is a disconnect between the agency's mission and the motives of those in charge.
It's a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

Bleakly Advisory Group, hired by the JIA to perform a "capacity study" to guide the scale and financing of Jekyll's ambitious redevelopment program, presented their analysis at a public meeting Sept. 29. The large public turnout included many island residents and a number of folks from as far away as Athens and Atlanta.
The crowd stayed focused through an hourlong power-point talk by two BAG men. Their presentation allegedly explained why Jekyll was losing visitors and how it needed to be saved from financial ruin by a certain amount of new construction over the next 15 years. That "certain amount" was determined to require about $100 million in funding for infrastructure like roads, water and sewer.

The problem is that the task JIA gave to BAG completely missed the point of doing a capacity study for a state park. The JIA is evidently so preoccupied with finances and development schemes they overlooked what a capacity study should ask first: How should the island be improved to enhance the experience that motivates visitors to go to Jekyll? And how can that be done in a way that's most consistent with conserving existing amenities, above all the natural environment?

Professionals in planning and managing public parklands, such as staff of the National Park Service, apply highly refined methods for addressing such questions. Yet, despite my suggestion to JIA last year to focus on visitor experience and the environment, they directed the consultants to give priority to the financial aspects.

JIA has thus subverted the most important issues. As a result, the consultants propose development that may permanently damage the atmosphere of Jekyll. Most of the heavy debt being proposed is required to support development that may not even be needed to serve the public's interest in using the state park as intended, since it was established 60 years ago.

A looming question stands: Is the development needed to service the debt or to meet the identified needs of visitors? If the objective is to increase visitation and the expenditures by visitors to produce enough income to ensure the state park is self-sufficient, how can the costly development proposed achieve that? BAG offers no convincing answer.

They only demonstrate why a certain amount of development will correspond with a range of debt to support it, assuming visitation will track development. Covering the cost of debt repayment obligates JIA to ensure levels of visitation and expenditures that are not only questionably achievable, but which - if achieved - are likely to detract from the traditional appeal of Jekyll.

Since there has been no qualitative analysis offered by BAG of what existing Jekyll visitors seek, they have assumed a business model that is more fitting for developing a coastal destination by the private sector. Conversely, based on extensive surveying of more than 10,000 visitors done by the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, there are substantial reasons to doubt the validity of BAG's sweeping assumptions.
Visitors, in fact, want very little additional development on Jekyll because they cherish the serenity and slow-paced interaction with nature that is the hallmark of the island's distinct appeal, compared to most coastal Southeast destinations. They do want improvements in hotels, but those are already underway. By creating a 30 percent increase in rooms above their historic peak, these hotels alone could provide ample capacity to support visitation desired, ensuring financial solvency of the state park.

Increasing the capacity of Jekyll's lodging and homes from accommodating 1,600 people to 3,700, as BAG recommends, could profoundly disrupt the tranquility that visitors want. Likewise, a near doubling of peak season population that BAG sets as a goal, from 7,800 daily to 15,000, could not only downgrade visitor experience but damage sensitive natural features, including endangered species habitat.

Also noteworthy is the doubling of average hotel rates from $116 a night to $240. This could contradict JIA income objectives by reducing the number of visitors who stay overnight, or reducing the number of nights people remain on the island, thereby decreasing expenditures for meals, shopping, and other items.

All told, under JIA's direction the BAG study amounts to the tail wagging the dog. After all, is Jekyll a public recreational amenity or a haven for private development? In their preoccupation with the tail, JIA is neglecting the dog, and that dog deserves our affectionate care.

David Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast.
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