Originally created 07/30/01

Jekyll Island aims to please all types



JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. - Bill Donohue has to run this state-owned island like a business. But unlike most businessmen, the executive director of the Jekyll Island State Park Authority wants some things to be cheap or free altogether.

'We meet a very diverse market," Mr. Donohue said last week. "All those visitors are here for different reasons, at different economic levels, all side-by-side."

Overnight stays are a good example.

'You have the options from $229 a night at Crane Cottage to Days Inn to the campground. There's a range," Mr. Donohue said.

It has not always been that way, however.

By law, the island is supposed to be self-supporting, and that means one of Mr. Donohue's main jobs is to raise revenue. That is why the authority board voted to raise the entry fee from $2 to $3 and it was also why some of Mr. Donohue's predecessors let some nonrevenue functions lag.

Since he took the job Sept. 1, 1997, Mr. Donohue has made sure picnic tables are serviceable and the boat ramp is in good shape, and he is trying to get the bike paths restored and expanded.

His vision is an island where people can come for a long golf, tennis or beach vacation or where nearby residents can come and spend the day to just get away for awhile and have some fun.

"It was a refuge for millionaires. It's why they came here," Mr. Donohue said of the former owners, the northeastern captains of finance and industry who established the opulent Jekyll Island Club in the late 1800s. It is now an affordable refuge, he said.

"If they want to escape, they can do it here. This is a good refuge for folks," he said.

MANY VISITORS come to the island to watch birds, to go on nighttime turtle patrols or to enjoy the uncrowded beaches, Mr. Donohue said.

By law, 65 percent of the island must remain free of development, and much of the remaining 35 percent is taken up by the four golf courses. The authority estimates more than 1 million people visit the 7.5-mile-long, 1.5-mile-wide island every year. There are an estimated 750 full-time residents.

The current crown jewel of the island is the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, the former lodging for the rich who didn't build island homes, and Crane and Cherokee cottages, two formerly rundown residences that are now an extension of the hotel.

Kevin Runner, the general manager of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, said the rooms of the renovated cottages have been great additions and that he would like to do more of it.

The two buildings had suffered badly from neglect. The facade of Crane, which formerly served as the authority offices, was decaying, much of its plumbing was not functioning and its floors and walls had been deteriorating.

Out the back door, Cherokee was faring no better, with floors buckling and storm gutters rusting and falling away.

Warren Murphy, the senior director of operations and museums, said the authority was doing the best it could with the available money.

Mr. Murphy, who became director of historic preservation 15 years ago, said in his first 10 years, the island had only $280,000 a year to spend on maintenance and project work.

That meant few projects got done.

With the generosity of Gov. Roy Barnes and Gov. Zell Miller before him, Mr. Donohue worked on team building inside the authority and formed partnerships outside, Mr. Murphy said.

ONE OF THOSE partnerships was an agreement with the Club Hotel in which the state spent $3 million and the hotel spent $2.2 million to renovate the homes into accommodations. With those renovations, the authority stepped up its pace on removing the asphalt - and thus the private autos - from the historic district and replacing it with tabby walkways.

Soon, cars will park in designated areas, all screened by bamboo and shrubbery, and visitors will walk or ride bikes or trams through the historic district, Mr. Donohue said.

Mr. Murphy appreciates the change.

"It couldn't be sweeter," he said. "I rode my bike through there last night, and it just made me grin."

Companies that don't have the money or inclination to improve face an uncertain future because the appointed authority members are ready to take some drastic steps.

"The authority has considered buying up some hotels, bulldozing them and putting the land out for proposals. The authority is willing to do what it takes," Mr. Donohue said.