September 25 witnessed the official unveiling of Linger Longer Communities' winning proposal in the contest among developers seeking to form a private-public partnership with Jekyll Island Authority (JIA). The core of the proposal deals with the creation of a $400,000,000, 62-acre beachfront village consisting of five distinct precincts, which is to serve as the hub on a revitalized Jekyll Island State Park.
The proposed village would include 277 condominiums, and 160 time-share units, a variety of shops and restaurants, a new convention center, and three hotels totaling 725 rooms. Small neighborhood parks, a central public park, and an environmental center would also be included within the 62-acre development.
While Linger Longer's Jekyll village sports a number of admirable features, it suffers by virtue of its size. Put simply, the proposed village is too big, given Jekyll Island State Park's well-deserved reputation as a model of restrained development. Initially, when the town square concept was first raised by the JIA some two years ago, the idea was to rebuild the convention center, perhaps add a convention hotel, enhance the current retail center, and include a modest number of condos. How this original concept mutated into a 60 acre village - meaning into a major real estate development project - is anybody's guess. What is certain, however, is that Jekyll's visitors, by and large, oppose the creation of a center of this size, according to an ongoing survey being conducted by the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island. In fact, 98 percent of the more than 5,700 respondents to date have said they do not want to see hundreds of condos line Jekyll's beachfront land for fear that this scale of development will work to the disadvantage of the park's traditional character and natural appeal. The question therefore arises: If the park's visitors are largely opposed to this scale of development, for whose benefit is it taking place?
The park's affordability also suffers with Linger Longer's proposal. Only 27 of the 277 condos to be built will be priced under $400,000 and the average cost of a time-share unit will be $16,500 per week, according to the JIA's own figures. Linger Longer's 400-room convention hotel will feature an average daily rate of $183. Add these rooms to those of the high-end Jekyll Island Club Hotel and the upscale 540-room hotel/condo complex soon to be built by Trammell Crow and Partners, and well over half of the park's lodgings will be priced beyond the financial reach of average income Georgians - a far cry from what was originally intended for "the people's park."
Concern over the upscaling of the park has led to the launching of an online petition - located at http://www.savejekyllisland.org/AffPet.html - under the banner of "Let's Keep Jekyll Island State Park Affordable." It's a sad day indeed when citizens must launch such a petition on behalf of a state park founded with affordability for mainstream Georgians in mind.
A third and sizable problem is that the JIA is being asked to assume responsibility for a $47,500,000 state revenue bond to cover the cost of infrastructure improvements in Phase I (2008) of the Linger Longer project, and another $35,000,000 for Phase II (2013). While taxpayer subsidies of private development are not unheard of, $82,500,000 is a whopper of a figure. It seems unwise to saddle the JIA, or the State of Georgia, with such a huge debt, particularly in the absence of figures on the profit margin Linger Longer envisions for its project.
An additional concern is that parking for day visitors from Glynn and surrounding counties has been reduced to the point where one must question if the interests of local visitors were given serious consideration. Four large ocean side parking lots currently used by day trippers and RVs have been eliminated. Linger Longer has made provisions for parking within the village itself, but the larger of the two parking lots it proposes serves the new convention center as well and is located well away from the beach. On street parking will be available, but given the demand from retail center traffic and residents living in the 400 condos and time-share units, parking for day visitors still seems to be lacking. Linger Longer has raised the possibility of building a parking lot near Jekyll's water park and shuttling people to the beach, but the inconvenience that comes with such a system will no doubt discourage many day visitors from coming to the park.
A minor point for some, but an important one for thousands of youngsters, is the fact that the park's highly popular miniature golf course (one of the oldest in the state) and adjoining children's playground have been eliminated for the sake of allowing the proposed new convention center to front on Great Dunes golf course. True, Linger Longer's proposal provides for neighborhood parks, but most of them will be tucked within the condo and time-share complexes and will not provide the same kind of accessibility or level of recreation that the existing playground provides. When all of the above is considered, one must ask if Jekyll Island State Park's true interests, along with those of "the plain people of Georgia" for whose benefit the park was set aside in 1950, are really being well-served by the kind and scale of development that has been courted by the park's governor-appointed board of directors and has been proposed by Linger Longer Communities.
Linger Longer is inviting public commentary on its proposal through the "Contact Us" link at the website www.rediscoverjekyll.com.
Opportunities to keep abreast of the Jekyll redevelopment situation and to get involved with the effort to preserve the park's traditional character and natural appeal can be found at www.savejekyllisland.org.