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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09/14 - Proposed plans for Jekyll are now a mouse click away

The Florida Times-Union
September 14, 2007
Times-Union correspondent

Jekyll Island patrons can get a sneak preview of three so-called town square center developments being proposed. But the peek will not tell them if hotels will remain affordable and seascape views will remain unencumbered.

Two weeks before a selection committee recommends their top pick for a developer, summaries of the three competing development proposals for a town square center were posted on the Jekyll Island Authority's Web site.

The Jekyll Island Authority had been criticized for keeping all details of the proposals confidential until Sept. 24, the day the full panel awards the project. Citizens have suspected the proposed hotels and amenities are geared more towards serving wealthy vacationers rather than average-income Georgians, as state statute requires for the park.

"We've heard the public's concerns over the selection process," Jekyll Island Authority Marketing Director Eric Garvey said of the decision to make the summaries public. "We're happy the public will see that these three finalists are all excellent ... they really have captured what the public is asking for from Jekyll."

The summaries of the finalists - Linger Longer Communities, Trammell Crow Co. and the Jekyll Island Revitalization Group - all promise to address hot-button development issues - protecting natural resources, maintaining the island's beauty and laid-back character and keeping the island affordable to average Georgians. But without more specifics, concerned citizens are still having trouble putting their fears to rest.

"At least we're getting some hint of what's coming," said David Egan, co-director of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, "but that's not necessarily making people feel any better about the proposals themselves."

One thing Egan saw in the summaries that he didn't like was a lot of condominiums.

"When we first heard about this from the authority, there was talk of placing condos as a second floor above shops, but now we're looking at hundreds of rentals and private properties," he said. "This is sounding more like a residential community than what they had described."

A survey of 5,000 Jekyll visitors shows that, while a majority of people support building a town square center, less than 10 percent want condominiums as part of the project and less than 1 percent favor more than 100 units, Egan said.

Jean Poleszak, a 25-year Jekyll Island resident, doesn't know if proposed hotels and condos at the town square center will block the beach view she now enjoys when she rides her bicycle between the convention center and Blackbeard's Restaurant to the north. The area is included in the 45-acre parcel proposed for the town square center, and though the summaries state the types of buildings that will be placed there and how many, they don't say where they will be.

"It's not explicit enough to make a decision," Poleszak said. "I'm unhappy about the idea of putting buildings there because views like this are what makes the island so unique."

David Kyler, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, says even with promises that hotels will be affordable to average people, it's unlikely that market forces alone will guarantee it.

"If you're going to rely on what the free market is willing to pay for this property, it would tend to make the cost go up beyond the means of average Georgians," he said. This is because coastal property commands premium prices in a free market, he said.

Kyler says a Jekyll Island managed as a private land development without any price restrictions will fail in its mission as a state park.

"Should the state even create a premiere resort destination in a state park?" he said. "This seems to me to be a misfit. The private market can do that itself. What would be the purpose of doing that in the public sector?"

Garvey said the three proposals now under consideration will not be the final word on the town square center design. Rather, they are being used to evaluate each developer's experience, financial plans, and creative ideas for Jekyll. After a developer is selected, the town square center design will begin anew and will be open to public input and modifications.

"We understand we need to hear from the public to help develop the best plan," Garvey said. TO VIEW THE TOWN SQUARE PROPOSALS Links to each of the three proposal summaries can be found at:

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09/17 - So how does affordability fit on Jekyll?

The Florida Times-Union
September 17, 2007
By Brandon Larrabee
The Times-Union

ATLANTA - Decades ago, Jekyll Island was a playground for some of the wealthiest people in the world. The site of the current Jekyll Island Club Hotel was the center of social life.

Those representing a substantial portion of the world's wealth would gather there every night.

That was before the 1950s, when a period of abandonment by the barons who had overseen the island prompted the state to acquire Jekyll and turn it into a state park.

In one of the great ironies of the island's history, the General Assembly soon passed a law requiring Jekyll's accommodations to be affordable for Georgians of average means.

But some see that tradition endangered as the authority that oversees Jekyll moves toward choosing a private partner for a major redevelopment effort, and as developers begin to move in on hotel properties that are set to be revitalized.

"This island has a long-standing tradition of being affordable," said David Egan, who with his wife, Mindy, leads the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island.

Egan and others see the coming revitalization as little more than an excuse to overhaul the island and turn it back into a playground for the wealthy.

Ben Porter, Jekyll Island Authority board chairman, said there is nothing to those fears.

"Our criteria is that we want a full range of hotel accommodations, from upscale to modest price," Porter said.

One of the question yet to be answered, though, is where the accommodations for lower- and middle-income Georgians will be when the overhaul is complete.

Porter didn't deny suggestions that hotels along the beach likely will be pricey, while more affordable places to stay could be a bit farther inland.

"It's unrealistic to believe that a big room facing the ocean is going to be a cheap room," Porter said.

He also defended the authority's position that it wanted hotels on the island that would appeal to "all Georgians" - a phrase that has come under fire from some opponents of upscale hotels who say that is a code word for bringing in high-priced accommodations.

"We have a responsibility to meet the needs of a broad range of economic levels," Porter said.

But Egan said the higher rates aren't necessary.

"We can have affordability and high-quality in a beachfront setting," he said. "That's a fact."

Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, said the authority is thinking more along the lines of what a private resort might do.

"It's a state park, and it's there so that Georgians can enjoy that beautiful environment that is not available to a lot of people," he said. "It sounds to me like someone is confusing private property with public property. It's not their goal to make huge profits."

Chapman also questioned why the authority had given an abatement to a developer set to build a potentially pricey facility on the site of the Buccaneer hotel.

"The real troubling part is that it doesn't appear that anything, essentially, is given in return," Chapman said.

Affordable rates could be one way of justifying the abatement, he said.

For some of those who visit Jekyll, low rates are one appeal, if not the only reason they go.

"If it were more expensive, it would prohibit us from staying more than just a few days," said Babs McDonald, an Athens resident who spends a week on the island with her husband almost every year. She said they have done so for almost 15 years.

And the affordability issue might not be limited solely to hotels, Egan said. The request for proposals issued by the Jekyll Island Authority opens the door for the private partner to assume control of at least some of the revenue-producing facilities, like golf courses.

"It wouldn't take long to see $100 golf rounds replace $35 golf rounds," Egan said.

Porter, though, said the revenue-generating facilities would only be turned over on a case-by-case basis, and if the private partner or developer has an idea for improving the facilities.

"We won't turn the island over to a private developer or group of developers and walk away," he said.,
(404) 589-8424

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09/18 - Deal to help return Jekyll to vacation spot > Opinion
Published on: 09/18/07

During the 1960s and 1970s, Jekyll Island was one of Georgia's favorite vacation spots. When Lucille Ball and Monty Hall ruled the airwaves ... winners on "Let's Make a Deal" often won trips to Jekyll Island and the then luxurious Buccaneer Hotel.

Fast forward 40 years. Most of Jekyll's hotel stock is tired and outdated.

In 2006, the Jekyll Island Authority sold the lease for the deteriorating Buccaneer Hotel, to developers, saving the hotel from bankruptcy. But despite maintaining affordable rates, the occupancy level for the Buccaneer this year has been only 37 percent.

Jekyll's former bread and butter, state professional associations, nonprofits, churches and other mid-sized conventions have been leaving the island in droves. While Jekyll has historically been self-supporting, if these declines continue, the Jekyll Island Authority will need to look elsewhere for revenue, or substantially reduce its operations of preserving and maintaining Jekyll.

Trammell Crow, a world class developer, has recently formed Jekyll Crow Replacement Hotel I. LLC, to construct a $90-million, three-star hotel and conference center on the Buccaneer site. Their plan calls for a conference center, 300 hotel rooms and 120 two-bedroom condominiums available for rental as hotel rooms during peak periods. Lease and hotel-motel payments to the JIA by the current Buccaneer over the next 20 years would total $7.5 million. Our new lease agreement for the larger hotel and conference center will give the JIA nearly $32 million over the same period or more than $1 million in new revenue per year.

Much has been made of a so called "sweetheart" deal between Trammell Crow and the JIA. Like most businesses, we negotiated this long term lease, and the details of the lease were then reviewed and voted on in a public meeting by the Jekyll Island Authority.

The Jekyll Island Club Hotel, which we greatly admire, made no lease payments at all to the JIA during its first decade of operation.

The city of Cumming, Forsyth County and state of Georgia recently assembled a package of incentives for Great Wolf Resorts to build a $130-million hotel, conference center and water park on Lake Lanier. That project will receive infrastructure improvements and tax incentives totaling $16.6 million. Jekyll Crow is receiving no rebates, no cash incentives, no tax reductions, no free land, no state appropriation or infrastructure improvements to their site.

We recently received a commitment from the Georgia Rotary Clubs International to return to Jekyll in 2009 if this new hotel is built. We look forward to helping Georgia restore Jekyll's luster, and placing it back atop metro Atlanta family vacation lists.

09/14 - Chapman's letter should open eyes

The Brunswick News
Date September 14, 2007
Section(s) Letters

State Sen. Jeff Chapman's letter to the Jekyll Island Authority Oversight Committee should open some eyes around the state.

The letter, the full text of which can be found on the website, clearly identifies the central flaw in the JIA Board's approach to redeveloping the park's aging hotels, namely, that oceanfront property is unsuitable for modestly priced lodgings. Board Chairman Ben Porter, the letter points out, has stated that "the board will try to make sure that rooms are available to low-budget visitors.

"This will likely be done by inviting hotel companies to build accommodations in the park's interior - no one expects beachfront rooms to cost less than $170 per night."

Well, excuse me, but assigning average income Georgians to the interior of their own state park is just not acceptable.

As Sen. Chapman, in referring to the Trammell Crow deal, aptly asks in his letter, "Is subsidizing a multi-billion dollar company more important to the citizens of Georgia than enjoying beachfront property in a state park, which has a legislative mandate to remain affordable?"

Citizens across the state should rally around Sen. Chapman's cry for fairness in Jekyll's redevelopment. As the senator says, "Jekyll's revitalization must be friendly to average income citizens and consistent with Jekyll Island State Park 's well-earned reputation as 'the people's park,' or risk reverting back to an elitist resort, financially out of reach for enjoyment by the average Georgian."

Bonnie Newell

Jekyll Island

09/12 - Porter's leadership will prove valuable to Jekyll

The Brunswick News
Date September 12, 2007
Section(s) Letters

The state of Georgia has challenged the Jekyll Island Authority to re-energize Jekyll Island. To do so requires renovation, new development and the raising of revenue.

Ben G. Porter was also appointed chair of the authority. He seems to be the recipient of most of the criticism of the plans put forth by JIA.

Based on 30 years of knowing Porter, competing against him, working for him and working with him, it is my belief that he has one of the top business minds in the state.

Furthermore, from personal experience, I will state emphatically that his ethics are first-class.

I would suggest that re-energizing Jekyll Island is in good hands. You might question the details but not Porter's business acumen or his ethics.

In the end, it is my firm belief that all Georgians will be pleased with the accomplishments of JIA under Porter's most capable leadership.

Fred Newton

St. Simons Island