Thursday, September 20, 2007

09/18 - Jekyll's dilemma: Keep island pristine AND update amenities

The Florida Times-Union
September 18, 2007
By Brandon Larrabee,
The Times-Union

This is the final part of a two-day series about the future of Southeast Georgia's Jekyll Island.

JEKYLL ISLAND - For someone coming from another city in Georgia, particularly a larger one like Atlanta or Savannah, it may take a moment to notice what's different about driving on the island.

It might not leap out exactly what's different until somebody points it out, though.

There's not a traffic light anywhere on the island.

And most like it that way.

"I think it's wonderful not to have a traffic light," said resident Jean Poleszak.

Welcome to Jekyll, a quaint, quiet small town on the sea that just happens to be a hot political topic.

To those who live there, and even some of the island's loyal visitors, the battle over the island isn't a faraway, abstract struggle.

It is a fight for their home.

For Dory Ingram, who lives on Jekyll part time, large hotels and blocks of condominiums - a spectre raised by the fight over the island's pending redevelopment - could compromise the state park's very character.

"I think that the character and the scale of the island are definitely endangered," Ingram said.

But those working on the revitalization plan that sparks fear about Jekyll's future say they are also fighting to protect Georgia's jewel from fading away.

"I believe that Jekyll's unique mix of history, natural resources and family-friendly accommodations will only be enhanced by the revitalization and redevelopment of portions of the island," authority executive director Bill Donohue said in an e-mail. "The current trajectory of declining hotel stays, golf games, user fees, etc. actually places the future conservation of Jekyll in jeopardy if not abated."

Island's traditional character

Longtime visitors and residents alike use the same basic words to describe Jekyll, variations on low-key, quiet, relaxed.

"It's folksy," said David Egan, who with his wife, Mindy, heads the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island. "It's got a charisma. It's got a personality of its own."

Egan said he and his group have no problem with redeveloping the hotels on Jekyll, as long as it's done in a way keeping with what the island has come to be.

"But do you have to sacrifice that traditional character in the process? I don't think so," Egan said.

There are knots of houses in a couple of places along Jekyll. A single retail strip across from the island's convention center serves as the only real shopping locale. Both the convention center and strip would be gone under the plans being worked on for a centerpiece for the island.

"The proposals being considered all redevelop the current retail strip center and convention center into a Town Center. ... There will likely be a housing component in the new town center, making this much more the 'center' of Jekyll Island," Donohue wrote.

Retail not needed, some say

The enhanced retail opportunities on a revamped Jekyll don't necessarily sit well with some of the people who visit the island now.

"I don't need to have access to every commercial need because that's not what I go to Jekyll for," said Babs McDonald, an Athens resident who regularly visits the island. "I don't go to Jekyll to shop."

The town center could also impinge on one of Poleszak's favorite parts of the island: a beachside walkway and bike path that runs along much of the island.

"I don't think there's any place on the East Coast where you can really have a walk like that and have it be all natural," she said.

Treasures are all over the island, like a phone similar to the one used in the first transcontinental phone call - with one end of the conversation being on Jekyll.

"We just seem to find something we didn't know about it every time we go there," said Theresa Matt, who has been visiting the island every year since 1975.

"Change it for the better"

And, of course, there is the natural beauty that is Jekyll's unique feature. State law requires that 65 percent of the island remain untouched.

When Ingram first saw the island years ago, she had a profound experience: "I never knew what natural beach looked like."

But to some, the character of Jekyll isn't the charming, small-towny island. Instead, it conjures up images of shabby hotels and a lack of tourist amenities.

By that standard, said Ben Porter, chairman of the Jekyll Island Authority's board, some revamping is needed.

"You change it for the better," he said, "because today the character of Jekyll is seen as tarnished and unattractive.",

(404) 589-8424 KEY PLAYERS IN FIGHT OVER JEKYLL'S FUTURE Ed Boshears: Former state senator and member of the Jekyll Island Authority board. Boshears has often been at odds with other members of the board, questioning some of the decisions made in the run-up to the appointment of a private partner. State Sen. Jeff Chapman: The Brunswick Republican was a sponsor of conservation measures during the legislative debate. Has been a major critic of a $10 million rent abatement for Trammell Crow and has pushed to ensure that the island's affordability mandate is followed. Bill Donohue: Executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority. Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island: A grass-roots organization with members from as far away as Canada, the IPJI has conducted surveys and passed around petitions to guard against what members see as wrong-headed or excessive development. Jekyll Island Revitalization Group: One of the groups bidding for the right to be the private partner for the Jekyll redevelopment effort. Partners include Wade Shealy, a member of the Governor's Land Conservation Council; the board includes Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones. Linger Longer: Owned by the developers of Reynolds Plantation, a posh resort on Lake Oconee. With close political ties to Gov. Sonny Perdue and President Bush, they are seen by many as the front-runners for the private partner contract. Ben Porter: Chairman of the Jekyll Island Authority, developer from Macon. Appointed to chairmanship by Perdue. Trammell Crow: Another competitor for the private partner contract. Has already struck a deal with the authority to redevelop the property that is currently home to the Buccaneer hotel, but the accompanying rent abatement has been criticized. Brandon Larrabee/The Times-Union

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