Wednesday, March 26, 2008

03/17 - Jekyll Island deserves a planned, professional upgrade > Opinion
By Jay Bookman
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/17/08

After a few days playing golf at Jekyll Island State Park this month, two things became painfully clear:

My golf game needs some major rehabilitation.

So does a lot of the island.

Jekyll is a special place, with lots of history and natural beauty, not to mention reasonably priced golf courses. And although it is hardly unspoiled, it is far less commercialized than other coastal resorts such as St. Simons and Hilton Head.

It is also a lot less expensive, the only resort along the coast that is still affordable to the majority of Georgians.

However, much of Jekyll's infrastructure —- its motels, its commercial district and restaurants, its convention center —- is outmoded and in decline. Visits to the island have been falling slowly over time as a result.

In response, the Jekyll Island Authority —- charged with running the park —- has committed to upgrade those facilities. Its goal is "to revitalize the island in a comprehensive way," says Eric Garvey, the authority's director of marketing.

Unfortunately, that's not what's happening. There is no comprehensive, overall plan for revitalizing Jekyll. Instead, it is occurring in a slapdash, piecemeal, unplanned fashion that endangers what makes the island special.

How many more hotel rooms can the island sustain without compromising its laid-back charm? How many peak-season visitors can it handle? What proportion of rooms should be priced for economy visitors? There are no answers to those and other important questions, a fact that has raised understandable alarm among those who love the island.

According to Garvey, the authority has plans to commission a company to conduct a study and then write a report to address such questions. But while preparations for plans to study are under way, the authority has already committed to major projects that have the potential to dramatically alter the island's character, including construction of more than 1,000 new hotel rooms and condominium units near the island's most popular beach. Several other expansions are also under way or planned, with others yet to come.

Taken separately, those projects may have merit. But on a small island such as Jekyll, they will not be experienced separately. Those developments and subsequent projects will have a cumulative and unknown impact. And while state law does limit development to 35 percent of the island, there is no limit on the density of that development.

The slapdash, amateurish nature of the revitalization effort is also apparent in how the authority has handled criticism of its efforts. The authority's nine-member board of directors is a public body, entrusted with a cherished public asset, and as such it has to expect to be the target of criticism. If some of that criticism has seemed unfair to authority members ... well, that comes with the territory. But rather than lance such suspicion with openness, it has reacted with anger and denial.

At the moment, that suspicion is being fueled by data purportedly showing a 47 percent decline in car traffic to the island since 1996. The number is cited often to justify major changes.

However, even a cursory look at the source of that number tells you it is bogus. Nonetheless, board members and authority staff have responded angrily and unprofessionally to those who have challenged it. Even now, the authority refuses to acknowledge that the number is wrong, as if any concession to their critics is impossible.

"I can't say it is and I can't say it isn't," Garvey said last week.

In itself, the number isn't all that important. But the way it is being mishandled explains a lot about the suspicions generated in this controversy.

Everyone agrees that visits to Jekyll are down; everyone agrees that its infrastructure needs updating. An authority more open to the public, more professional in its approach and less arrogant in its operations would be able to build on that agreement and accomplish something important.

> Jay Bookman is deputy editorial page editor. His column runs Monday and Thursday. (

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