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Ga. island preserved for ‘average’ folks is under pressure from luxury developers

JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. — For nearly 60 years, Jekyll Island has been Everyman’s island.
    A 1950 Georgia law explicitly says the state-owned coastal strip should be accessible to Georgians of ‘‘average income.’’ What constitutes ‘‘average income’’ is a matter of debate — there’s one four-star hotel, and the many ranch-style homes built in the 1960s are worth more than a half-million dollars by virtue of being so close to the beach.
    But for the most part, this is a middlebrow, Rotary Club sort of place, with modest low-rise hotels like the Buccaneer Beach Resort and the Days Inn, both at $89 a night.
    Now, however, it’s starting to look a little shabby, and the politically appointed keepers of the island are entertaining proposals from developers for luxury hotels and million-dollar homes — an idea that has some people worried that Jekyll Island will put itself out of reach to the common man.
    ‘‘There are so few of these places left, why can’t this be kept for the people?’’ asked Frank Mirasola, 75, who retired to the island 10 years ago. ‘‘Not everybody can afford a $500,000 condo.’’
    Connected to the mainland city of Brunswick by a six-mile causeway, Jekyll Island is known as ‘‘Georgia’s Jewel.’’ Under law, it must remain two-thirds undeveloped, making it one of the least built-up East Coast islands reachable by car.
    The 7 1/2-mile island wasn’t always so accessible. From 1886 until the 1940s, it was the private winter playground of America’s wealthiest — Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer. They built hulking Victorian ‘‘cottages’’ that by anyone else’s standards are mansions.
    The millionaires’ exclusive Jekyll Island Club fell into decline with the Depression and folded during World War II. In 1947, the state bought the island for $675,000 to set aside as a park for budget-minded tourists.
    Because of the state’s limits on development, the island was spared from the rapid buildup that swept neighboring St. Simons Island and Tybee Island off Savannah.
    ‘‘Developers have figured this out and there’s almost a gold-rush mentality on the Georgia coast right now,’’ said Chris DeScherer of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Atlanta.
    Jekyll Island has more than 600 private homes, eight hotels, a convention center, four golf courses and a water park. (In one of the few holdovers from the gilded years, there is a $399-a-night Presidential Suite at the Jekyll Island Club.)
    However, decades of wear and tear are slowing the influx of visitors and hurting business, said Bill Donohue, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority, which manages the place for the state.
    Conventions have stopped coming because of the musty, outdated hotels. For 40 years, more than 1,000 Georgia Rotary Club members used the island for their spring convention, but they haven’t been back since 2003 because of complaints about the rooms. The group now meets in Sandestin, Fla.
    The water park’s wave pool shut down last summer so that a cracked basin could be fixed. Golfing has declined, and the amount the island collects in greens fees each year has dropped by about $750,000 from a decade ago.
    The island’s authority has solicited ideas from developers and is finding itself under pressure to make the island more stylish, like other island resorts.
    No one is talking about upsetting the two-thirds rule. But on the already built-up part of the island, one development team has proposed ‘‘high-end, luxury redevelopment’’ where soccer fields and a 4-H Center for children now stand. Another developer submitted a plan for 2,000 new homes and condominiums, ranging from $350,000 to more than $1 million.
    Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson favors more luxury hotels, as well as budget options, describing Jekyll as a potentially ‘‘multimillion-, maybe billion-dollar asset.’’
    ‘‘Can you imagine if a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons or something like that, a St. Regis, 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?’’ Richardson said.
    Such talk has raised fears the island will revert to an exclusive retreat for the wealthy and spoil the place as an ideal spot for nature walks, bird-watching and beach vacations on the cheap.
    ‘‘There’s not a whole lot to do here, but that’s why you come,’’ said Kay Royer, 59, of Sparrows Point, Md., who has visited twice a year with her husband since he retired as a steelworker in 1999. ‘‘It’s not overbuilt and congested, compared to Hilton Head (S.C.) or some place where it’s totally overdone.’’
    Donohue said he understands the fear and suggested that luxury development could be combined with more affordable lodging without running afoul of the ‘‘average income’’ law (‘‘What we say is ‘all’ Georgians. I don’t know what the ‘average’ Georgian is.’’) and without utterly transforming the island.
    ‘‘Everybody out there says, ‘If you give me all the oceanfront property, I can make it like Panama City and you’ll make a billion dollars,’’’ Donohue said. ‘‘You may think it’s supposed to look like South Beach, but we don’t.’’
    Ed Boshears, a former state senator and member of the Jekyll Island Authority board, said the island needs new hotels and an updated convention center, but warned against pricing it beyond the means of most folks.
    ‘‘An average Georgian is who’s been coming to Jekyll Island for the last 50 years — bus drivers, farmers, church groups, teachers groups,’’ Boshears said. ‘‘We don’t attract investment bankers from New York.’’

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