ATLANTA - It was designed decades ago as a vacation spot for all, but Georgia lawmakers could debate changes that would transform state-owned Jekyll Island from a hodgepodge of a few aging hotels into an upscale resort.
No legislation has been filed, but the board that oversees the 7.5-mile barrier island along Georgia's 100-mile coastline has already decided to move forward with plans to hire a consultant that will help find a developer to build new homes and hotels.
And some board members are concerned that developers could pressure lawmakers to give them more leeway to reshape the rustic island, using its older hotels and an outdated convention center as a pretext.
"They're worn out and they need to be replaced," said Ed Boshears, the board's secretary and a former state senator from nearby St. Simons Island. "What is happening, though, is the big development interests are using that as an excuse to open up the rest of Jekyll to massive development."
House Speaker Glenn Richardson said recently that he expects legislation soon that would give the Jekyll Island Authority new powers.
"It's a multimillion-, maybe billion-dollar asset sitting there owned by the state and it's just not producing," he said.
He said he supported a range of new hotels, "everything from a Motel 6 to a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons," but he seemed to back more glitzy offerings.
"Can you imagine if a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons ... came in there, and each one of them took over one of the golf courses, developed the villas around them and a hotel on the beach?" he asked. "It would be a fantastic source of revenue for the state of Georgia and a good place for the people of Georgia to go."
Such a development likely would require a change in the state laws governing the island. It has long been a favorite vacation spot for Georgians, partly because embedded deep in state law is a requirement that the island's facilities be accessible to people of "average income."
It's also pristine, because the law demands 65 percent of the island be left untouched. Over the years, the remaining land has been developed into a mix of private homes, a few shops and restaurants, eight hotels and a water park.
Few disagree that many of the hotels on the island are worn down and need to be replaced to spur the island's convention and tourism business. Richard Wood, the chairman of the island's governing board who lives on nearby St. Simons Island, said Jekyll's annual revenues are at $16 million and falling, partly because of competition from nearby resorts in South Carolina and Florida.
"Conventions are going elsewhere. Hilton Head and Amelia is getting our business," he said. "We don't want their traffic problems, we just want their business." Mr. Boshears and some other board members support a targeted redevelopment plan to renovate the convention center, revitalize a nearby shopping area and build a few new condominiums. He said plans are also in the works to replace old hotels with at least three new ones.
He and some of the island's residents fear that the board, appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, has a broader plan in mind. A likely target is the south end of the island, which is home to a soccer complex and a 4-H Center - and one of the few parts of the developable area not yet built up.
Mr. Wood tried to pour cold water on the idea, saying the board is only focused on redeveloping the current hotels, but residents aren't convinced.
"All we're hearing is talk about million-dollar home developments," said Mindy Egan, a 56-year-old who has lived on the island for 10 years.
The island authority's board has nine members, eight appointed by the governor and one ex-officio member from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. All but one, Georgia State University administrator Thomas C. Lewis, have been appointed during Mr. Perdue's tenure. The first big test likely will come during this year's legislative session, when lawmakers could consider extending the board's authority over Jekyll beyond 2049, which board members say is needed to give them more leverage when negotiating deals.
The island's 1,000 or so residents said they'll be watching closely to guard for other language that could be slipped into the legislation.
"I'm scared to death. It's always been a really special place. I just think it should stay that way," said Jean Poleszak, a 78-year-old who has lived on Jekyll for 25 years.
Mr. Richardson said changes for Jekyll are "on the horizon."
"It's something for all of Georgia to look out for, except for the few people who live there who think it's their island," he said. "And little do they know it's owned by the people of the state of Georgia and they're just leasing it."
Owned by the state of Georgia since 1947 and managed by the Jekyll Island State Park Authority, Jekyll Island now has development limited to only 35 percent of its available land area.
The Jekyll Island Authority is composed of a nine-member board of individuals appointed by the governor for four-year terms. The authority oversees the operation, maintenance and promotion of the island's amenities and Historic District, and the provision of municipal services for the island's residential community, hotels, rental cottages and businesses.