SAVANNAH, Ga. — Although Georgia’s new beachfront convention center on Jekyll Island won’t open for two months, its staff is already booking dozens of meetings and trying to win back business from groups that moved their annual gatherings to other resorts years ago.
What Jekyll Island had to offer had grown outdated and musty, so officials undertook a $50 million makeover with the 128,000-square-foot convention center as its centerpiece. The idea is to reverse years of slumping vacation and meeting business on the state-owned island about 90 miles south of Savannah. Construction on the convention space finished last month, and Gov. Nathan Deal plans to attend a grand opening ceremony May 20.
“That’s what we’re holding on for, once the new conventions start coming,” said Butch Bishop, a co-owner of Jekyll Island’s grocery store and a variety store that sells T-shirts and rents fishing equipment to tourists. “Our business had dropped off several years in advance of the construction. This was needed.”
Other key pieces of the project – two new convention hotels and 40,000 square feet of space for shops and restaurants – won’t be finished for another two years. But that hasn’t stopped the Jekyll Island Authority, the agency that manages the island, from aggressively wooing the new venue’s first visitors.
More than 200 meetings and conventions have been scheduled between this summer and 2016.
Jekyll Island spokesman Eric Garvey said the groups vary in size, but each event includes at least one overnight stay. The convention center’s initial bookings are expected to bring $40 million worth of meeting expenses, hotel bills, dinner checks and souvenir shopping.
Garvey said the authority has set a goal of landing 120 conventions a year, roughly doubling the island’s previous convention business. Part of that strategy involves going after convention groups that once were regular customers on Jekyll Island but stopped coming years ago because it lacked modern lodging and meeting spaces.
“We lost a lot of business down to Amelia Island and Sawgrass” in Florida, Garvey said. “So we’re working hard to win it back.”
IN THE PAST decade, complaints piled up from convention groups about Jekyll Island’s outdated meeting space and hotels. Some groused the meeting rooms weren’t big enough. Others noted leaky fixtures, musty carpets and an overall lack of frills in their hotel rooms.
The island’s previous convention center was built in 1961. And Jekyll went for 35 years without a new hotel until a Hampton Inn & Suites opened in 2010.
The aging amenities cost Jekyll Island the annual convention of more than 1,000 Rotary Club members from western Georgia. After meeting on the island for 40 years, the group pulled out in 2003 and started gathering in Sandestin, Fla.
Margie Kersey, of Lawrenceville, the district governor for the Rotary group, said Jekyll Island staffers have called to invite her and other leaders to come tour the new convention center in hopes of luring back their business. She said they might consider it, especially after the new hotels nearest the center have opened in 2014.
“The convention venue and the hotels are the two huge, huge things for us,” Kersey said. “Believe me, there is a very vocal contingency that would love to stay right here in Georgia. I’ve got my fingers crossed.”
PRIVATE DEVELOPERS ARE building two hotels, but they won’t be ready for some time. The 135-room Hyatt Place is slated to open in spring 2013, while a 200-room Westin should be finished by 2014. The island has other hotels, but they’re not adjacent to the convention center.
Jekyll Island’s makeover was planned as a shared public-private venture, with taxpayers footing the bill for the convention center, development of a beachfront park and new roads to tie the whole project together. Private partners were brought in to build hotels and shopping areas.
But now the state is taking over part of the development that was supposed to be privately funded. Plans for the project’s new retail space hit a snag last month when the developer had to bow out because it was unable to get financing to start construction.
Garvey said the Jekyll Island Authority has taken over the retail development, which now will be built with at least some state funds. No decisions have been made, but Garvey said it’s possible another private partner might share the development and that overall construction could be scaled back to as little as $6 million.
JEKYLL ISLAND OFFICIALS have insisted the retail development be finished before the last hotel opens two years from now.
“We’re going to get it done, and we’re going to do whatever it takes,” Garvey said.
Jekyll Island’s old shopping center was torn down to make way for the next construction, and its former tenants occupy trailers in a parking lot overlooking the beach.
Bishop’s variety store is one of them along with a bank, an ice cream shop, a beauty salon and a liquor store. Bishop said he is eager to move into a permanent home by the convention center, where he is betting more customers will come through his door. But he is not impatient either.
“We’re willing to wait for it to be done right,” Bishop said. “Putting off the expense of moving for a little while longer is not going to upset us either.”