Monday, February 25, 2008

02/11 - Jekyll Island: Revitalize, but sensitively > Opinion
Published on: 02/11/08

On Feb. 6, state Sen. Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick) introduced three bills on Jekyll Island. The bills, which prohibit development along Jekyll Island State Park's remaining open beachfront and help ensure that the park is revitalized in a responsible fashion, bring to a head a controversy that's been brewing for nearly a year. A brief review of "developments" on Jekyll in recent months shows why Chapman's legislative initiative has become necessary and is so welcomed by Jekyll's friends.

Everyone agrees that Jekyll Island State Park is in need of revitalization. Its oceanfront hotels have deteriorated, public dissatisfaction with its lodgings has grown, and visits have fallen off.

Unfortunately, the Jekyll Island Authority made a decision some months ago that revitalization requires not just hotel reconstruction but an oceanfront "town center" as well. Accordingly, the JIA is now considering a proposal by a private developer — Linger Longer Communities — that would create a condo/time share/hotel community along the island's most popular public beach.

Even though public opinion is running strongly against the proposed town center complex, LLC is marketing the project as something Jekyll needs and the people of Georgia want. Citing a 47 percent decline in visitation to Jekyll over the past decade, LLC says its Jekyll Village is necessary if Georgians are to "rediscover Jekyll."

Truth be told, most of the reported 47 percent drop in visitation comes from a change in the JIA's traffic-count method. Beginning in 1997, the JIA stopped including vehicles with annual passes as part of its traffic count, leading to an artificial drop of 40 percent in visitation (1.5 million people) in that year alone. The facts show that when the change in traffic-count methodology is taken into account, the real drop in visitation since 1997 has been 12 percent, not 47 percent.

Even if there were a 47 percent drop in visitation, there isn't any evidence that Georgians are longing for a town center and would "rediscover Jekyll" if only the island had a "commercial hub," as LLC claims. In fact, visitor opinion, as recorded in a series of surveys reaching more than 8,000 people, says "no" to a more commercialized Jekyll and "yes" to revitalization that is in harmony with Jekyll's feel and grace.

Visitor opinion also says hotel reconstruction will revitalize Jekyll and should be completed before the JIA thinks about more development. The hotels that have been rebuilt in recent years enjoy fill rates nearly double those of the hotels in disrepair and waiting for redevelopment. Five other hotels will be rebuilt over the next five years. When hotel redevelopment is completed, Jekyll will have nearly twice as many hotel rooms and condos as it does now, and a projected increase in revenue of more than $3 million per year for the JIA.

The JIA has labeled the critics of the town center proposal as "obstructionists" who are opposed to all change. The truth is that Jekyll's visitors stand for responsible revitalization. They support hotel and convention center redevelopment, the enhancement of the island's amenities and recreational opportunities, the further development of Jekyll's nature tourism potential and a ban on new development near Jekyll's environmentally sensitive areas, particularly the beachfront of this delicate barrier island.

In a representative democracy, elected leaders must be sensitive to the will of the people if democracy is to have any meaning at all. Chapman clearly understands this bedrock principle of representational government. His Jekyll bills were born in response to public sentiment, clear the way for the revitalization of public property and benefit the vast majority of our state's citizens.

A senator acting on behalf of the general will is what good government is all about. Now it is up to the people of Georgia to do their part by urging lawmakers to support Chapman's Jekyll bills. Please visit for information on how to proceed in this regard.

• David Egan is co-director of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island State Park.

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