Monday, February 25, 2008

02/12 - Authority eager to move ahead

Date February 12, 2008
Section(s) Local News
The Brunswick News

Two years after the idea of a modern Jekyll Island came to light, plans to redevelop the island are, for the most part, still just on paper.

That's not to say developers are dawdling. Currently, the Jekyll Island Authority is waiting for final plans from Linger Longer Communities, its private sector partner, to begin the framework for the $341 million redevelopment blueprint.

Those against the plan are continuing to speak out against it. Opponents include state Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, who last week introduced three bills in the Georgia General Assembly that would all but kill the project in its current form if passed. It is bound to ignite debate in Atlanta.

Meanwhile, the planning continues, said Eric Garvey, senior director of marketing for the Jekyll Island Authority.

Plans call for new hotels, a new commercial district and new convention center.

"The next step is to hear back from the Linger Longer attorney and the (state) Attorney General about changes to our plans," Garvey said. "We are expecting that anytime. We have received support from the Georgia General Assembly and the Jekyll Oversight Committee. We are getting ready to take our next steps."

Those steps include analyzing and confirming designs for Beach Village, the planned hub of activity under new island designs. The assessment is expected to be completed between mid-March and April.

This month, Jekyll Island Oaks, one of the new hotels charted to set up shop on the island, is expected to release plans for is development. Garvey noted that the hotel is on schedule to break ground by the end of the year.

He said by and large, people are very supportive.

"Now that people are hearing more about our plans, the negative feedback has lessened," he said. "People were worried about the unknown. But now the ideas are being talked about openly and people are more comfortable with our ideas."

Rumors of revamping the state-owned island began circulating in 2006, when the Jekyll Island Authority announced plans to begin a redevelopment project.

Garvey is expecting the plan to wrap up in 2011.

For his part, Jim Langford, project executive for Linger Longer Communities, is busy collecting and evaluating community input on the project.

"We're still talking to folks around the state to figure out what they like about our plans now and what they want to change," Langford said. "After we figure all that out, we'll change our plan to fit what we hear from the community. That time should probably come about March."

Of the responses he's compiled thus far, Langford has found overwhelming acceptance with current redevelopment ideas. Specifically, he has received positive feedback regarding price ranges for new hotels - an about-face from prior reviews.

One of the measures Chapman is sponsoring in the legislature seeks to control the pricing of new rooms in the state park. His argument that the island would become too expensive for "average Georgians" is also one of the points of opposition made by the citizens group, Save Jekyll Island.

"There are always people who don't want any kind of change and will find fault with everything," Langford said. "But most people are now saying they like that we will offer varying levels of prices for accommodations."

Community commentary regarding the variety of activities planned for the island has been overall positive, Langford said. Under the revitalization plans currently being discussed, visitors will be able to vacation without ever stepping foot in their car, thanks to the addition of new bike and pedestrian paths and a number of attractions within walking distance of hotels.

By law, 65 percent of the island must remain untouched. Of the 35 percent that is currently developed, only about 63 acres, or 1 percent, will be altered under the Linger Longer plans, Langford said.

"That is one thing I have heard a lot of people say they are happy with, is our effort to be eco-friendly," said Langford. "We have to find that right balance between building and conservation."

The Jekyll Island Citizens Association is conducting a market study with organizations and event sponsors who have previously used the Jekyll Island Convention Center. Participants are asked to share their opinions regarding the potential move of the center from its current location, to a larger facility closer to the proposed beachfront convention hotel.

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