Jekyll's Future Debated in the Tifton Gazette
Jekyll developer welcomes public comment
Feb. 8, 2008
The pages of the Tifton Gazette have been littered recently with incorrect information concerning the future of Jekyll Island. This subject inspires great passion but some of the expression of this passion is misguided and ill-informed. I must counter the accusations leveled at me personally and at Linger Longer Communities, the revitalization partner chosen by the Jekyll Island Authority.
Questions about the authenticity of declining visitation on Jekyll Island are simply unfounded. Since 1990, causeway traffic is down by half, tours of the historic district are down 29 percent, golf rounds are down 32 percent and hotel stays on the island are down 24 percent. In addition, many statewide groups that previously held their conventions on the island have decided to take their business elsewhere – even out of state. Many of those specifically say they will not return unless the island’s facilities are upgraded.
Although several writers allege that occupancy rates haven’t dropped significantly in the past few years and that declining visitation can be attributed to closed hotels, the truth is quite different. With fewer hotels, the same number of visitors should produce a rise in occupancy rates. Instead those rates continue to slide. And all of this is happening while Georgia’s population – and visitation to surrounding islands – is booming. Visitors must have more incentive to visit Jekyll Island than just a new hotel or a coat of paint on an old one.
While visitation and revenues decline, the Jekyll Island Authority has more than $50 million of necessary capital improvements to the island and infrastructure. That backlog continues to grow, and the downward spiral of visitation will continue as amenities continue to crumble. Meanwhile, the cost of the maintenance backlog will fall on the people of Georgia if the island does not generate the revenue to pay its own way.
While opponents say they favor upgrading existing hotels and replacing the convention center, their actions indicate otherwise. Many are opposed to all of the redevelopment projects occurring on Jekyll Island, including developer Trammell Crow’s Canopy Bluff project on the site of the old Buccaneer Hotel. In addition, they refuse to acknowledge that the new Linger Longer village is also in the footprint of existing land disturbances, including the convention center, shopping center, parking lots and Blackbeard’s Restaurant. Therefore, they are being disingenuous when they claim to support building on existing footprints on one hand and then oppose these revitalizations on the other.
Opponents also allege that the island is being "privatized" and beach access restricted. While old Tom Watson might enjoy such populist oratory, the reality is that the proposed plan does not restrict public access in any way. Instead, the new plan significantly improves – not eliminates - existing public access points to accommodate the island’s visitors.
Contrary to early fears and rumors, this small village will not be an exclusive community for the wealthy. No gated communities, no restricted access to beaches, no condo towers. Moreover, the proposed plan means a range of affordable accommodations with 72% priced under $139 per night per bedroom.
I’ve worked on behalf of conservation issues in Georgia for more than 30 years, and I asked for the opportunity to work with Linger Longer on the revitalization plan so that I could have a strong voice in ensuring environmental sensitivity and forethought. Our approach has been to develop a plan that brings people back to the island while preserving the unique cultural and ecological resources that make Jekyll so special. I am proud that one of our key partners in this proposal is Southface Energy Institute, a non-profit organization with a well-known reputation for creating standards for environmentally sustainability. We intend to make Jekyll a model for other coastal communities to study and emulate.
During my travels around the state to gather input from the public, I consistently hear one thing loud and clear: the people of Georgia have an old and deep love for Jekyll Island.
A very small group of detractors, some from Georgia and some from other states, say that they don’t want anything to change on the island. They see the island as their private "discovery", and they really don’t want any more visitors.
But the vast majority of Georgians are sad that the island is not a fun destination anymore, and they are eager to see their old friend Jekyll revitalized. Those that see the details of the Linger Longer plan believe that this plan has the right amount of development without going too far. Georgians want to come back to the island and bring their families – but only after the new project gives them compelling reasons to return.
Georgians also know that the State cannot do this project alone, and bringing in a private partner is not a "greed driven" relationship. It simply makes good sense for the State, for the taxpayer and the island visitor. Other state-owned properties and even national parks have private partners to help build and run hotels, golf courses and restaurants.
In a few weeks we will have a new version of the plan for revitalization. This new version will incorporate constructive suggestions from the public that we have gained from six months of public meetings, emails and travels to all parts of the state. We encourage the public to keep sending us their ideas.
Unfortunately, some people don’t really want to have a constructive dialogue about revitalizing Jekyll and have made no helpful suggestions about ensuring a sound future for the island. This includes State Senator Jeff Chapman who introduced legislation this week that would completely derail any serious attempts at revitalization. He did so on behalf of that small number of people who really don’t want more "average Georgians" or any other visitors coming to Jekyll Island. It’s an effort to drag out the process to the detriment of every Georgian who wants to see their beloved island rise again as a preferred recreational destination.
I look forward to continuing to meet people across the state, including those in Tift County, and hearing what the people of Georgia say as we work hand-in-hand to revitalize their island. We are still in the process of refining our plan, and we welcome your input. Please send visit our web site at www.rediscoverjekyll.com and make your voice heard. We read every email, those for and against the revitalization, and we take all of them into account.
Linger Longer Communities
Redevelop Jekyll in a responsible way
Feb. 11, 2008
Jim Langford’s Tifton Gazette article captures perfectly why so many people are upset with how Linger Longer is marketing its town center proposal. Let’s look at the facts and try to separate ‘spin’ from truth.
To begin with, visitation is not down by half since 1990, as Mr. Langford claims. The DOT figures he cites compare peak season causeway traffic counts from the early 1990s to off-season traffic counts in recent years. The DOT has confirmed that this is the case, and Mr. Langford was informed of this fact weeks ago, yet he continues to repeat the same argument. Why? Because Linger Longer, despite the facts, must insist that visitation has dropped dramatically so it can justify its claim that Jekyll needs major development — a “town center”— if Georgians are to “rediscover Jekyll.”
The truth is the Jekyll Island Authority’s own traffic count figures show a 12 percent drop in visitation over the past decade, most of which is linked to the lack of decent accommodations on the island, rather to any longing for a town center, as Linger Longer has falsely assumed.
Equally misleading is Mr. Langford’s argument that the decline in golf rounds on Jekyll shows that visitation has dropped by 50 percent. True, the number of golf rounds has dropped off significantly, but Mr. Langford apparently is unaware the fact that Jekyll’s courses competed against only a few local public golf courses in the early 1990s. Now they compete against 12.
Mr. Langford says hotel stays on the island are down by 24 percent since 1990, but he fails to note that Jekyll now has 30 percent fewer hotel rooms than it did in the 1990s. When he does mention the closing of some hotels, he tries to argue that with fewer hotel rooms occupancy rates should have been up in the other hotels. The truth is the poor condition of most of the remaining oceanfront hotels has suppressed their occupancy rates.
The two oceanfront hotels (Beachview Club and Days Inn) that have been rebuilt in recent years enjoy fill rates nearly double those in disrepair, yet Mr. Langford says Jekyll needs more than “a new hotel or a coat of paint.” The success enjoyed by these two hotels indicates that occupancy rates will increase dramatically in the other oceanfront hotels that are up for reconstruction over the next five years.
Mr. Langford claims that the Linger Longer project will rest within the existing footprint of developed land. Anybody who knows Jekyll also realizes that the vast majority of the “developed” land being referred to consists of oceanfront public parking facilities.
Mr. Langford has said that Jekyll needs “a more reasonable” use of that land, defining “reasonable” as an oceanfront condo and time-share community. Suffocating Jekyll’s open beachfront with what Linger Longer is selling may be a “reasonable” plan for Mr. Langford, but it does not sit well with the vast majority of Jekyll’s visitors, according to surveys reaching more than 6,000 Georgians. This is not to say that people are defending aging, asphalt parking lots, as Mr. Langford has often claimed. The surface of the existing lots should be made more environmentally friendly, and picnic space could be added as a buffer zone between the lots and the beach.
“Average Georgians” are Linger Longer’s target audience, says Mr. Langford. Linger Longer’s own statistics, however, show that the average price of its condos will be over a half-million dollars, and that its typical condo will rent for above $2,000 a week, more than double what a comparable oceanfront villa now rents for on Jekyll. Furthermore, the largest of Linger Longer’s three hotels (400 rooms) will have an average daily room rate of $183 and well over $200 in the summer season, when Georgians typically vacation on Jekyll. Linger Longer’s ‘economy’ hotel (the one for “average Georgians”) has 125 rooms and is located as far from the beach as the town center development site would allow. In fact, its rear end is hanging off the west side of the 45-acre development tract.
Mr. Langford implies that Linger Longer loves affordability, stating that 72 percent of the town center’s rooms will be priced under $139 a night. What he does not say is that this figure only holds true if each room in a rental condo is counted separately and then averaged in with hotel rooms.
Mr. Langford labels those who are opposed to Linger Longer’s commercialization of Jekyll’s most popular beach as people who “don’t want anything to change on the island.” The truth is surveys show that Jekyll’s friends favor responsible revitalization of the island, including hotel reconstruction, convention center redevelopment, enhancement of family dining opportunities, expansion of the campground and further promotion of Jekyll as an ecotourist destination. They do not, however, want to see Linger Longer’s condo/time-share/hotel complex take root along Jekyll’s hallmark open beach.
Mr. Langford describes Sen. Jeff Chapman’s recently introduced Jekyll legislation as an attempt to “derail any serious attempts at revitalization” and as serving only “that small number of people who really don’t want ‘average Georgians’ or any other visitors coming to Jekyll Island.”
The truth is Sen. Chapman, as most people know, is an outspoken supporter of Jekyll’s revitalization and a long-time friend of “average Georgians.” His legislation would help to ensure that Jekyll is redeveloped in a responsible fashion and remains affordable for most Georgians, allowing more and more people to visit the island and enjoy the splendor of Georgia’s Jewel. Sure, Sen. Chapman’s Jekyll bills would protect Jekyll’s public beach from commercialization, but is this a bad thing? Does this constitute “a derailment of revitalization,” or is it just good public policy at work?
Unfortunately, Mr. Langford, in an effort to sell a flawed proposal that would benefit a private developer, has only muddied the waters of the Jekyll development controversy. When fact is separated from fiction, however, the silt disappears and the truth about the Linger Longer project rises to the top.
Co-Director, Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island
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