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Georgia's jewel for sale
Jekyll Island threatened by good-ole-boy politics
Jekyll's Driftwood Beach - photo by Jim Morekis

LAST MONTH Governor Sonny Perdue handed over a 50-year development contract for Jekyll Island to George W. Bush’s cronies.

Jekyll Island is called “Georgia’s Jewel” because of its miles of priceless beachfront land and breathtaking natural surroundings.

The barrier island was purchased in 1949 as a place for Georgians of all income levels to enjoy as a state park. It was the people’s land, but this last week much of it was signed over for the next 50 years to a developer with deep political connections.

“There’s something wrong here,” says former Jekyll Island Authority (JIA) board member State Sen. Ed Boshears, who recently was removed from the governor-appointed JIA board. “Do we allow a fat cat developer to make millions of dollars for no other reason than to enrich themselves and their political cronies?”

The partnership between the JIA and the developer Linger Longer has been controversial since it was first announced last year. “Linger Longer’s proposal was by far the worst plan presented to JIA,” says David Egan, a resident of Jekyll Island and organizer of the Initiative to Save Jekyll Island State Park.

Linger Longer is owned by Mercer Reynolds, known in Republican circles as a fundraising guru. In 2004, as George W. Bush’s campaign finance director, Reynolds raised several hundred million dollars for the president’s reelection campaign. His development in north Georgia, Reynolds Plantation, is a hangout for the wealthy and well-connected, with a Ritz Carlton and multi-million dollar vacation homes.

Jekyll Island State Park, on the other hand, has been an affordable beach hangout for the common people for over 50 years. But, with Linger Longer perhaps building timeshare condos where there is now beachside parking, “the public is getting bumped off its beach,” says Eagan.

State Sen. Jeff Chapman of District 3 says that the other developers who bid on the contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars offered better deals for the state. “It was a rigged process right from the start,” says Chapman.

Boshears, who is senator of District 6, says that once Linger Longer was awarded the contract and negotiations began, he was discouraged from asking questions, describing a veil of secrecy.

“The contract was not discussed with JIA board members. It was completely the governor’s decision,” says Boshears.

Senators Chapman and Boshears say separately, but with equal conviction, that the Jekyll Island contract is a rotten deal for the people of Georgia.

Frank Mirasola, former president of the Jekyll Island Citizens Association, tells reporters “I can only conclude that there are conditions in the agreement that are so heinous as to require total secrecy.”

The 50-year contract gives Linger Longer beachfront property to build a 160-unit timeshare with profits estimated to be $100 million from sales totaling $137 million.

The JIA’s cut will be 1 percent of the sale of the condos, and 3.5 percent of the receipts from the hotels, but only after four years of free profit; ten years for food and beverage sales.

Chapman says the national average for leases on state-owned property is 7 percent of all sales.

“It may not be illegal, but what has happened is a horrible and terrible violation of the public’s trust,” says Chapman. “And in this economic time, it is shameful.”

The goal of the revitalization for the state park was to generate revenue by attracting more visitors to the island. Visitation has been steadily declining for decades.

So why, wonders Chapman, has the JIA ignored this by depriving the state park millions of dollars?

The JIA board members are “trustees” of the island for the public, and the oversight committee — of which Savannah’s Eric Johnson, now running for lieutenant governor, is a member — is charged with overseeing that that trust is upheld.

The JIA board and the oversight committee have, as Chapman says, “given away the farm.” Jekyll Island and Georgians deserve better. cs

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