Jekyll residents question consultant on hotel plan

JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. --- A planning consultant who advised Jekyll Island to build 1,400 hotel rooms and condos was greeted by public mistrust and resentment at a meeting Monday.

"We have heard it said that we are upset about this because we don't want anything to change," Brunswick resident Lauren Renke said. "We do want a change. We just want a change with moderation."

Two weeks ago, Bleakly Advisory Group unveiled a plan to raise $99 million over 15 years to rebuild the barrier island's aging infrastructure. On Monday, the public was invited to review the plan and ask questions. But few of the about 75 people in attendance seemed comforted by the "build more hotels and they will come" strategy to raise cash.

"Why does building more rooms give us more visitors?" Jekyll resident Al Tate asked. "I don't see anything in the study that properly addresses the correlation."

Overnight visitors generate four times more revenue than Jekyll's other visitors, said Ken Bleakly, the president of Bleakly Advisory Group.

Athens resident Babs McDonald, who pointed out that she held a master's degree in outdoor recreation and park planning, said defining Jekyll redevelopment purely in terms of revenue isn't consistent with professional public land-development practices.

"You need to have public involvement in the process," she said. "And you need recreation professionals on your team. What are your plans for authentic public involvement?"

Mr. Bleakley said Monday's meeting was just the beginning of the public comment process. He had plenty of numbers to make his points.

Though Jekyll remains head-above-water on operating revenue, many of the park's assets are 40 years or older and must be replaced. Jekyll's governing authority has said it needs $99 million to rebuild roads, the historic district, its commercial center and visitor attractions.

Mr. Bleakly and project manger Gary Mongeon stressed that Jekyll needs to do something to reverse the estimated 23 percent slide in visitation.

The park earns enough each year to reinvest only 2 percent of the value of island assets into fixing its infrastructure.