New concept unveiled for Jekyll Island’s historic shopping district

Plan for ‘District Shops’ calls for new businesses to replace long-operating stores
The Pier Road shopping area of the Jekyll Island Historic District will undergo an overhaul later this year. (Photo courtesy of the Jekyll Island Authority)

Credit: Jekyll Island Authority

Credit: Jekyll Island Authority

The Pier Road shopping area of the Jekyll Island Historic District will undergo an overhaul later this year. (Photo courtesy of the Jekyll Island Authority)

JEKYLL ISLAND — For all the rave reviews offered by visitors to Jekyll Island, the feedback frequently is littered with the same points of criticism.

Not enough dining options. Not enough nightlife. Why isn’t there a coffee shop? And why do some retailers keep such odd business hours?

Jekyll’s leadership took a step toward addressing those critiques Tuesday by unveiling a conceptual plan for the Pier Road shopping district, located in the island’s National Landmark Historic District adjacent to the Jekyll Island Club hotel and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.

The overhaul is marked by upgraded landscaping, lighting and outdoor gathering areas, and renovations to the historic cottages that house the shops. The structures were housing for servants during the heyday of the Jekyll Island Club, a winter retreat for industrial titans such as the Rockefellers, Pulitzers and Morgans that closed following the Great Depression.

The changes also mean that long-running tenants will be forced out once leases expire in September to make room for new retail and dining options. The cost of the redevelopment plan has not yet been determined.

Pier Road’s seven shops make up one of two retail centers on the state-owned barrier island where new development is restricted by law. Georgia bought Jekyll out of bankruptcy after World War II and made it a state park to be preserved for the enjoyment of “people of average income.”

The Jekyll Island Historic District shopping area is located adjacent to one of the island's biggest tourism draws, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. (photo courtesy of Jekyll Island Authority)

Credit: Jekyll Island Authority

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Credit: Jekyll Island Authority

Jekyll’s chief administrator, Executive Director Mark Williams, outlined the concept during Tuesday’s meeting of the Jekyll Island Authority board of directors. He told the group the plan for what is to be known as the “Tthe District Shops” is meant to improve the visitor experience and make the area a stronger draw.

The strategy includes spaces for a grab-and-go eatery and beer garden, an ice cream and candy store, and a coffee shop. Operators for those businesses will be selected through a bid process later this year.

Dissatisfaction with the Pier Road shops has been growing since Jekyll began a dramatic rebound in visitation following COVID-19 closures. The island saw record tourism the past two fiscal years, topping 3 million visitors, and is on pace to set a new mark in 2024. Officials cited visitors’ complaints, which included inconsistent hours kept by the existing tenants and a narrow mix of products — largely island-themed keepsakes — among the various businesses.

Five of the seven businesses were open Tuesday on a rainy afternoon.

The JIA notified operators in the fall that their leases would not be automatically renewed at 2023′s end. The move set off protests from the shop owners, some of whom have operated in Jekyll’s historic district for decades. Several shopkeepers spoke out against the lease decision during board meetings in the fall and sent letters to elected officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp.

The JIA later agreed to extend leases while the conceptual plan was being finalized.

Only one current Pier Road business owner spoke at Tuesday’s board meeting. Doc Daugherty, a resident and operator of the Island Sweets Shoppe, asked whether he would receive special consideration to operate the ice cream and candy shop listed as part of the plans for the District Shops.

“I understand the new concept and the board feeling the need to redo the historic district,” said Daugherty, whose store sells ice cream, candy and homemade fudge. “There are some shortcomings down there, but not everything is a shortcoming.”

The Island Sweets Shoppe is an ice cream and candy business operating in the Jekyll Island Historic District. (Adam Van Brimmer/adam.vanbrimmer@ajc.com)

Credit: Adam Van Brimmer

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Credit: Adam Van Brimmer

Williams told Daugherty his proposal would be considered the same as the others submitted. A JIA spokeswoman said several Jekyll-based entrepreneurs and others from the surrounding area have expressed interest in the three food-related spaces to be put out for bid.

The JIA will solicit bids beginning in April with decisions on the operators scheduled for June.

The plan for the District Shops also includes a portrait studio, a “Georgia Grown” foods store, a Christmas-themed market and the existing Remember When gift shop.

In addition, the structure once home to the 101 Old Plantation Rd, Jekyll Island, GA 31527, located on the southern edge of the historic district a few hundred yards south of Pier Road, is being remodeled to house a merchandise and apparel store operated by the JIA.

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