Public Space on Jekyll’s Beachfront: Commercialization versus Preservation

On February 12, 2009, the JIA will issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) from developers interested in building the private components of the Jekyll town center that were formerly tasked to the Authority’s departed private partner, Linger Longer Communities. As of now, it appears that the RFP will exclude the controversial 160-unit timeshare complex proposed by Linger Longer for the oceanfront property on the south end of the town center site (where Jekyll’s beach deck is located) but will include lodging development of some sort for the timeshare site without increasing the town center’s overall density. At least 500 lodging units are needed within the town center for it to be viable as a concept, according to the JIA. No economic studies have yet been offered by the JIA to justify this claim.

It’s a bit puzzling as to why the Jekyll Island Authority feels the need to fill the site of the currently open and publicly popular beachfront just north of the Days Inn with additional lodgings, given that a dramatic increase in Jekyll’s lodging stock is already in store. One oceanfront hotel has just been rebuilt; four additional hotel redevelopment projects are in the pipeline; and two new hotels totaling 350 rooms are planned for the Jekyll town center, which, collectively, should boost the island’s number of hotel rooms 60 percent beyond its all-time high of 1,538 units. In addition, over 100 condos have been added to the Oceanfront Resort property, and up to 75 loft condos may be included as part of the island’s new retail center.

The loss of public space on Jekyll’s beachfront is particularly troublesome when considering that popular demand for beach access by day visitors will increase substantially in coming years as Georgia’s coastal population continues to grow. In view of this fact, it would seem that the prudent step for the JIA to take would be to wait to see how the new hotels, condos and retail center fare before thinking about filling currently open beachfront public land with more commercial development, whether it be a hotel, condos, cottages or timeshares. If, in the future, demand for lodging outstrips the available supply, more lodgings can always be added, but the case for doing so now is not very compelling.

The JIA does, however, deserve credit for showing good judgment in tabling the idea of timeshares, a product which has a reputation for maximizing income for developers and operators but being a poor investment for vacationers.  As one analyst has said, timeshares are, for various reasons, “poor, even horrible, investments”:

  • Money will be lost, because with timeshares, one is essentially pre-paying a substantial chunk of money for vacations.  Thus, either one pays unsecured credit-card interest rates for financing of the purchase, or one ties up his funds unwisely over long periods. 
  • Maintenance fees will be charged every year, regardless of unit use.  The fee has to cover costs of running the timeshare, and cost of profit that the property manager needs to make.  The fee will inevitably rise every year. 
  • The timeshare unit will rapidly depreciate in value.  Timeshares lose 40 to 75 percent of their value as soon as the purchase is complete.  This is one reason that hard-sell   tactics must be used to convince new buyers to go through with the deal.
  • Timeshares can be difficult to sublet – they often rent for less than the maintenance fee. 
  • The option of exchanging one's timeshare with timeshare owners at other vacation spots is an expensive one, because the timeshare-exchange company that manages the trade must receive a payment.  Furthermore, the options for exchange become less attractive as one's own timeshare ages – owners at the most attractive, newer vacation spots don't want to trade for a unit at an older building.

Even the three largest time-share players -- Wyndam Worldwide, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, and Marriott -- have dramatically pared their timeshare businesses in the past year in response to weakening demand, falling prices and difficulty securing loans for consumers.
The JIA deserves a pat on the back for dumping the timeshare project, but the question remains, why would a public park Authority even consider placing an embarrassing blemish like a timeshare complex among the hotels, motels, lodges and campgrounds that state parks generally host?  And, why, in entertaining this option, would the JIA select as a site the most widely used section of Jekyll Island’s currently unobstructed beachfront? 

While the JIA is indicating that the site in question will host new lodgings, IPJI has urged the Authority to change its mind and preserve or enhance the site as public beachfront space to be enjoyed by Jekyll’s visitors, now and for generations to come.