I learned the hard way in my corporate life never to underestimate the power of grass-roots organizations. They are always the last to blink in a fight. I have the scars to prove it.
One such group is the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, which claims to represent more than 5,000 visitors to the island from across Georgia and beyond. They are opposed to a number of elements in the $352 million, 62-acre proposed redevelopment plan of the Jekyll Island Authority and its developer, Linger Longer Communities.
While on the coast recently, I dropped by to see David Egan, who, along with his wife, Mindy, co-chairs the organization. If I was expecting a long-haired, earring-wearing tree-hugger in Birkenstocks, I was to be disappointed. Egan is a soft-spoken retired professor of Russian history from the Northeast, and Mindy is a psychologist. The pair moved to Jekyll in 1997, after having made the island their vacation destination for a number of years. Retirement plans called for playing a lot of golf, not getting caught up in a redevelopment brouhaha.
Egan told me he agrees that lodging needs to be improved on Jekyll Island, that more quality family dining options should be available and that the convention center is substandard. The devil seems to be in the details. He opposes any redevelopment that includes an assortment of high-end and high-cost accommodations and amenities and which jeopardizes the island's ecosystem.
"Jekyll," he says firmly, "is a people's park. Its natural beauty is what draws people here."
Egan shakes his head at some of the numbers used by the Jekyll Island Authority to justify the need for redevelopment. They just don't add up, he claims, citing an instance of automobile traffic onto the island dropping by 44 percent between 1996 and 1997 and yet hotel occupancy falling by only 2 percent. "The only way those numbers can be justified," he quipped, "is if a lot of visitors parachuted in that year."
Dr. Kenneth Cordell, an expert on outdoor recreation issues at the University of Georgia, agrees. "In my research over the years, I have never seen data changes that drastic," he says, "and no one seems to be able to offer a satisfactory explanation."
As a result, Cordell says he is planning a follow-up study to his most recent one which showed traffic onto the island has remained relatively stable over the years.
David Egan says this is his major irritation with the Jekyll Island Authority. "If redevelopment is a good deal for the taxpayers, then sell it on the merits, using reliable data," he says. "Don't just throw around unsubstantiated numbers."
The retired professor also isn't happy being portrayed by the JIA as part of "a minority who want to close the gate behind them so that they may enjoy their own utopia." Egan says, "Most of the residents on Jekyll Island are conservative and are not hell-raisers. We want visitors, but we also want accurate facts from the authority and the developer concerning the revitalization project, and we aren't getting them."
Egan and his organization have their own numbers to tout. His group surveyed some 7,000 individuals from across the state and say that 95 percent support some revitalization, but with limited condominiums, no encroachment along Jekyll's existing beachfront and marshlands, and more "ecotourist opportunities."
"The authority needs to be marketing the extraordinary nature experience available on the island, not trying to promote condos," he says.
In the meantime, Linger Longer is back at the drawing boards, modifying its current plan, which should be made public in a month or so. Already, the Jekyll Island Authority has backed off plans to place hotels and condos on the parking lot that has long served as access to the beach.
There is going to be some new development on Jekyll Island. That is a given. The question is how much and what kind.
In the meantime, I would suggest taking David Egan and his Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island organization seriously. He didn't ask for this fight, but he doesn't strike me as the kind who will back down either. Grass-roots groups rarely do.
Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published May 3, 2008.