It’s full-steam ahead, finally, for developers of this state park along Georgia’s southeast coast.
After a decade of unrealized plans, bad economic times and stiff opposition, seven hotels are under construction or nearing the shovel-ready stage, promising 1,000 new rooms for visitors. A slew of shops and restaurants rises alongside the new convention center. The state plans to refurbish the 4-H Center beloved by generations of Atlantans.
“We’re feeling good about where we are now,” Eric Garvey, spokesman for the Jekyll Island Authority, said recently. “We have a full plate and people get excited when they get to the island and actually see all the building.”
Not everybody shares Garvey’s enthusiasm.
Development doesn’t signify progress for many of the lovers of the laid-back island who prize untrammeled beaches, maritime forests and unique history. Nor do they relish a wall of three-, four- and five-story hotels blocking ocean views and conjuring unfriendly comparisons to nearby St. Simons or Sea Island.
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Adding to the sense of loss: hotel room rates that seemingly run contrary to Jekyll’s legislative mandate, and long tradition, of remaining affordable for “the average Georgian.”
Myra and Michael Sheehan so adored Jekyll that Myra tossed Michael’s cremated remains into the Atlantic Ocean a few miles off the coast in 2008. A perennial visitor since 1955, Myra senses a different island atmosphere.
“The feeling I get is, ‘To hell with average people coming to Jekyll. We’re going to develop it whether you like it or not,’ ” said Sheehan, 67, from Winston-Salem. “If they want people to come back they’ll have to keep the room rates affordable so the middle-class people can come.”
Price wasn’t much of an issue during Jekyll’s 19th century gilded era when Northern industrialists named Morgan, Vanderbilt and Pulitzer transformed the 7.5-mile-long barrier island into a wintertime retreat. Their marsh-side “cottages,” along with the famed Jekyll Island Club, are now a designated a National Historic Landmark.
The state bought the island in 1947. The Jekyll Island Authority, with nine board members appointed by the governor, was created three years later. The authority manages, develops and protects the state park.
Middle-class America’s love affair with the automobile fueled the island’s heyday from the 1950s through the 1990s. Sheehan’s parents, for example, stumbled upon Jekyll while traveling to Florida in 1955. They never made it to Miami.
Time and competition, though, eroded Jekyll’s cachet and profitability. The hotels grew moldy and revenues dwindled. In 2004, island officials considered redeveloping the barrier island 300 miles from Atlanta.
Owners of the upscale Reynolds Plantation proposed a $352 million plan in 2007. They promised 1,100 hotel, condo and time-share units along 64 beachfront acres. Jekyll lovers statewide fought what they considered the oversized, overpriced project.
Reynolds offered a scaled-down version in 2008, but financing for coastal development evaporated during the Great Recession. The project died a year later as did most of the island’s revitalization efforts. The state stepped in with $50 million in bonds to build a convention center and park.
The 2012 announcement of a 200-room Westin hotel put redevelopment efforts back on track. The Westin, set to open in early 2015, will cater to convention-goers. Two dozen shops and restaurants alongside the Westin are also under construction, with the first set to open later this year.
A 135-room Hyatt Hotel, south of the retail district, is scheduled to break ground this summer, according to the authority.
The big news, though, came in April when Texas developer Trammell Crow announced three hotels with 535 oceanfront rooms. A Marriott Courtyard and a SpringHill Suites are slated to open in December 2015; a pricier third hotel has yet to be identified.
If all are built as planned, Jekyll will offer a record 1,800 rooms, up from about 800 now. Nearby St. Simons counts 1,900 rooms, nearly one-third of them condo rentals.
“We find ourselves coming out of this downturn with new product and really no other destination can say that,” Garvey said. “We feel like we’re having a great year. There’s renewed interest in the island.”
Not all of it positive, though.
“Our biggest problem, besides pricing, is that they’re going vertical on all these properties and creating a density issue that collides with the traditional character of the island,” said David Egan who, along with wife Mindy, runs the nonprofit Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island. “Take the Trammell Crow project. What’s going to be the impact on that area, of walking up that beach and seeing wall-to-wall people and buildings four stories high right on the edge of the dune line?”
The average Georgian
In 1947, Gov. Melvin Thompson called Jekyll “a state park for the plain people of Georgia.” Three years later, the General Assembly ruled that the island remain “available to people of average income.”
Amid debate over redevelopment, the legislature in 2006 stipulated that the Jekyll authority should ensure “the lowest rates reasonable and possible for the benefit of the people of the State of Georgia.” The authority has limited power to dictate room rates but doesn’t use it.
The Rev. Greg Lowery, a self-described “average Georgian,” has visited Jekyll since the early 1970s. The preacher and his extended family will rent a cottage there this month. He’ll bring a church group back for the July 4th week.
“Melvin Thompson is turning over in his grave,” said Lowery, who pastors Pleasant Hill Baptist Church near Dublin. “He wanted Jekyll to be a playground for all of Georgia. But they’re just catering to a small percentage of Georgians.”
The U.S. Census Bureau pegs the state’s median household income at $49,604. The average Georgia family contains 3.27 members, the bureau calculates.
That family would be hard-pressed to afford a week at a beachside hotel during the peak summer months. At the Days Inn on Jekyll, for example, a room last Saturday with two double beds facing the parking lot cost about $200 a night including taxes, or nearly $1,400 for a week.
“I can’t afford that,” Lowery said.
Most of the new hotel rooms will likely cost more. The Westin, which will cater to the expense account crowd, has listed a $200 average daily rate, meaning it would be higher during peak months. The historic Jekyll Island Club Hotel plans 39 pricey suites near the convention center. Trammell Crow has said summer rates at its two announced hotels will likely top $250 daily, though a spokeswoman said pricing has not been set.
“When (the authority) announced this revitalization effort the idea was to have a balance of hotel rooms: economy, mid-range and high end,” Egan said. “What the hell happened to that? There is no economy hotel planned. Their mindset is that this is valuable oceanfront land and we don’t want to waste it on economy hotels.”
Garvey and others tout the existing Days, Quality and Hampton inns as bargain-rate lodgings that will still be available. Hundreds of additional rooms should lead to more competitive rates, Garvey said, adding that the affordability mandate doesn’t apply solely to overnight stays.
“We’ve spent a great deal of our effort making the island improved for everybody,” he said, listing the new park, bike paths, bathrooms and other amenities popular with day visitors. “Our approach has always been to keep (Jekyll) affordable.”