Depending on who you talk to, Jekyll Island is about to be taken over by greedy real estate developers and turned into a fancy vacation resort with prices out of reach to ordinary Georgians, or it is a seedy, financially strapped rundown shell of its former self.
There is no question that Jekyll Island needs a facelift. Major convention groups, including the prestigious Georgia Press Association and the Georgia Association of Broadcasters among others, left Jekyll Island a number of years ago because of poor accommodations and inadequate meeting facilities. They are not coming back until things improve.
To that point, the Jekyll Island Authority solicited bids for revitalizing the island - much to the consternation of some of the locals - and in September awarded the business to Linger Longer Communities, which lists among its developments Reynolds Plantation on Lake Oconee in Greensboro. As mandated by state law, only 35 percent of the island is available for development.
Jim Langford is project director for the $350 million Jekyll project, and even his opponents concede that he is not your typical developer type. Langford headed the Georgia Trust for Public Land before signing on with Linger Longer. "Some people even called me a tree-hugger," he jokes. But he turns serious on Jekyll's 63-acre proposed development. "We are trying to do something good for the people of Georgia," he says.
Langford says the redevelopment plan covers less than 1 percent of Jekyll's total acreage, and less than 8 percent of Jekyll's nine miles of beaches, includes a new convention center, new hotels and rental cottages, and will be a model for environmental design and construction. The developer says the plan gives visitors and Georgia families a wide range of affordable accommodation choices.
Opponents say Linger Longer is being overly creative in their use of numbers and are working overtime to kill the project, but with little success. State Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, had three bills opposing Linger Longer's plans recently rejected in committee hearings in the legislature.
Langford has had a number of meetings with residents to get their input and concedes that some changes could be in the works before a revised plan is presented to the JIA in late March. The Linger Longer proposal anticipates hotels up and running in just three years and the new convention center operational in 2013.
"No way that is going to happen," declares Ed Boshears, a former state legislator and a member of the Jekyll Island Authority. Boshears is one of the vocal opponents of the project. He says that in order to begin the project, the developer must first get a permit under the Shore Protection Act, a complicated piece of legislation that requires approval of any construction taking place near the beaches.
The permit process starts with a review of the permit by a citizen review committee, then a vote within the State Department of Natural Resources, and if either side loses, the appeal process goes to an administrative law judge and can be appealed to the Superior Court, Court of Appeals and all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court. Boshears cites a small marina in Camden County that has spent the past three years in the appeal process. A project as complex as the Linger Longer development could be tied up in the courts for years, he predicts.
To try to kill the development is a futile and misguided effort. Opponents would be better served to work with Linger Longer Communities and affect changes that both sides can live with. Jekyll Island badly needs revitalizing. Stopping the redevelopment of the island is not the answer.
What would be most helpful would be for sides to remember that Jekyll Island belongs not to the locals or to developers or to the Jekyll Island Authority. It belongs to all of us. It is a self-sustaining facility and an extraordinary and under-appreciated resource in Georgia.
No matter where you live in the state, you need to be tuned into what is happening on Jekyll Island. Somewhere between run-down motels and a $350 million development sits the future of one of Georgia's crown jewels.
E-mail columnist Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org.