Thursday, September 6, 2007

08/31 - Jekyll authority defends its plans

The Florida Times-Union
August 31, 2007
Times-Union correspondent

JEKYLL ISLAND - The Jekyll Island Authority is asking Georgia to trust it.

At a two-hour meeting Thursday with the Jekyll Island Oversight Committee, authority members told legislators their plans to revitalize Jekyll Island's hotels and amenities would draw more visitors, increase revenue and protect the island's cultural and environmental assets.

The meeting was open, but the format did not permit public questions or comments. Committee member and state Rep. Terry Barnard, R-Glennville, along with state Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, asked questions, however, that reflected recent public criticisms of the authority. Barnard sponsored the legislation that created the oversight committee.

Those criticisms include: The authority is ignoring a mandate to keep Jekyll Island affordable, a process to select a private developer does not allow any meaningful public input and a well-financed hotel developer was recently awarded an inappropriate $10 million rent abatement package.

According to authority Chairman Ben Porter, a planned 45-acre town square center will generate $70 million in revenue, create 500 jobs, bring $2 million per year in new tax revenue, and generate sales tax revenues of $50,000 per year.

Private developers began bidding on the town square center project this summer. The long-term private partner, to be selected in September, will develop the town center and will be offered a contract to manage Jekyll's other amenities.

Barnard asked the board to address the affordability issue raised by citizens.

Porter responded, "We do not intend to create a playground for the rich. The master plan will include a full range of bedroom accommodations and prices."

But authority member Ed Boshears challenged fellow members to go beyond making promises.

"I have asked the board repeatedly to address the affordability issues," Boshears said. "All we've been given is vague generalities. Let's be specific about this."

Boshears suggested any developer upgrading an existing facility into an upscale hotel should be required to provide affordable accommodations at another site to replace those that were lost.

Barnard also asked Porter to describe the process that will be used to select the private development partner. The process has been criticized for keeping all details from public view until the day the full board votes.

A selection committee of two authority members and two staff members will analyze and score proposals and then recommend their top pick to the board for approval on Sept. 24, Porter. If it is not approved, the selection committee may recommend another proposal, Porter said.

In a recent interview, David Egan of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island said allowing meetings of no more than four board members will prevent a quorum and close the selection process to the public. The authority has nine members. Anytime a majority of any public group meets - five in the authority's case - the meeting must be open to the public.

"It's definitely shut off from the public. No one is going to get a look at those proposals or find out any of the details until Sept. 24," Egan said.

Barnard asked the authority to respond to assertions that a $10 million rent abatement given to developer Trammell Crow amounted to a giveaway. Trammell Crow was awarded a contract to rebuild the aging Buccaneer Hotel.

Authority members said such rent abatements are normal when developers put so much of their own money at risk.

"You have to consider this developer's commitment, and look at every angle that affects the balance sheet," authority member Steve Croy said.

While all present agreed positive balance sheets were an important goal, Boshears asked the oversight committee to shift its thinking to other matters, too.

"Our name is the 'Jekyll Island State Park Authority.' We are a state park here," he said. "I urge you not to look at this as just a real estate development. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how to build condos up and down the beach."

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