Saturday, November 3, 2007

10/16 - Losing bidder protests Jekyll's choice

The Florida Times-Union
October 16, 2007
Times-Union Correspondent

JEKYLL ISLAND - A consultant who was supposed to help Jekyll Island officials select a new revitalization partner manipulated numbers and facts to make the winning proposal appear stronger than it really was, a competitor has charged.

The Jekyll Island Revitalization Group, who lost its bid to become Jekyll's revitalization partner last month, said Jekyll's consultant, Bleakly Advisory Group, skewed the facts to make one developer's town square proposal look more appealing than the others. As a result the developer who planned to put the most new construction on Jekyll Island, Linger Longer Communities, was made to appear as if it would be developing it the least.

"We had a better land plan, a better team and paid the public a better financial return. We also were asking for no money from the state," said Wade Shealy, managing partner of the Jekyll Island Revitalization Group. "If [Bleakly] hadn't manipulated the numbers we should have won."

Bleakly made an "apples and oranges" comparison between proposals when it placed green space and density figures in winner Linger Longer's plan next to those of the Jekyll Island Revitalization Group, Shealy said.

That's because Linger Longer was permitted to put its development on 64 acres instead of the 45 originally allotted for the project. The advantage allowed the company to spread out more construction over a larger distance, and at the same time win points with board members for having the plan with the most green space and the lowest density, he said.

In the summary portion of the report, Bleakly listed abundant green space and low density among Linger Longer's assets, while high density was listed as an issue for the Jekyll Island Revitalization Group's plan. If Linger Longer had been forced to confine the buildings to 45 acres, as the other two developers did, Linger Longer's green space and density numbers would have been the worst of the three finalists, he said.

Ken Bleakly, president of Bleakly Advisory Group, said the Jekyll Island Revitalization Group should have known it could extend development beyond 45 acres. At a June question and answer session the Jekyll Island Authority Board, which governs the island's development, told developers they didn't need to restrict their proposals to the 45-acre site. They could suggest upgrades to other amenities on Jekyll in addition to the town square center.

"They had 64 acres, too. They just chose not to use it," Bleakly said.

Shealy doesn't buy that explanation.

"They knew by Aug. 13 that Linger Longer was planning to build on 64 acres and didn't ask the other two groups, 'What would you do with an extra 19 acres?'" he said.

Shealy also criticized Bleakly for making Linger Longer's financial return appear stronger than it really was.

Bleakly's report showed Linger Longer requested a $47 million bond from the state to help finance its project, but Shealy said Bleakly left out an additional $37 million that Linger Longer had requested for 2013.

Ken Bleakly said the extra $37 million for Linger Longer was removed out of fairness because it was for upgrades to the island's water and sewer system, which the authority would have had to pay for anyway. But Shealy called that explanation weak.

"If that's so, we should have known about it. There's no way to verify it because we can't find anything about why it was removed in the communications between the two organizations," he said.

The Bleakly comparison also produced misleading revenue figures for the Linger Longer plan, said Shealy. The report said Linger Longer would produce $67 million for the Jekyll Island Authority over 15 years. But Shealy said that figure includes a 5 percent lodging tax that accounts for roughly one-third of the revenue. The tax allows Linger Longer to lower its room rates slightly, but make up some of the revenue with the tax.

"We could have shown lower room rates, too, if we had charged a tax," said Shealy. "It's just something that should have been disclosed."

Shealy further criticized Bleakly for not mentioning the Jekyll Island Revitalization Group proposal would have put 65 percent of Jekyll Island into a conservation easement and contributed $500,000 per year to the Jekyll Island Foundation.

"We would have identified right up front which land would stay undeveloped. Without that protection we could find the whole island developed 20 years from now," Shealy said.

After the board selected Linger Longer, Shealy told board members the Jekyll Island Revitalization Group's plan had not been fairly represented. But, Shealy said, board members seemed more worried by how his complaint would look to the public than whether the process had been fair.

"[Board member] Sam Kellet told me, 'If you stay cool and don't go to the press, there will be something for you down the road at Jekyll,'" said Shealy.

Contacted by telephone Monday, Kellet denied having made such a statement.

Shealy questions why the Jekyll Island Authority hired Bleakly Advisory Group. The company was sued in 2006 for misrepresenting a hotel developer's proposal in response to another government issued request for proposals.

The board chose Bleakly as its consultant without opening up the process to competitive bidding, in violation of Georgia procurement law, Shealy said.

"This has been the problem with this group, the Jekyll Island Authority, from day one," said Shealy. "They are not following the process right."

Ben Porter, chairman of the Jekyll Island Authority Board, said Monday that Shealy's protest has been referred to the state Attorney General's Office and a response will take several weeks.

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