2007-01-31 / Opinion

PROGRESS THREATENS PARADISE

by Alex McRae

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue opened the legislative year vowing to do more to protect Georgia's natural resources.

His buddies obviously didn't get the memo. If they had, state leaders would be trying to preserve Jekyll Island in its present state instead of turning it into Dollywood East for the benefit of a few folks who think expensive hotels and golf courses are the key to Georgia's economic future.

Jekyll was purchased by the state of Georgia in 1949 and is operated by the Jekyll Island Authority, a nine-member board appointed by the governor. By law, 65 percent of the island must remain undeveloped and left in its "natural state." That's a noble goal in anyone's book. And until now the island has been treated gently, at least by current development standards.

As a result, Jekyll's major hotels don't stack up against their glitzy counterparts in Amelia Island, Sandestin or Hilton Head. And Jekyll's aging convention center has a hard time drawing anything more profitable or prestigious than the Georgia Elks Association's annual bash or the Second Annual Russian Festival, both of which hit the island in recent years.

But the trade off is worth it. Jekyll still doesn't have traffic jams, strip joints or wallto wall shops pushing cheap Chinese souvenirs. Its beach is also among the South's cleanest.

But that seems to be a problem for some Georgia lawmakers,

especially Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson, who believes Jekyll could - and should - be a real cash cow.

"It's a multi-million, maybe billion-dollar asset sitting there owned by the state, and it's just not producing," Richardson said recently.

"Can you imagine if a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons or something like that, a Saint 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? It would be a fantastic source of revenue for the state of Georgia and a good place for the people of Georgia to go."

When Richardson says Jekyll is "just not producing," he's right.

It's not producing air pollution, crime and sleaze to match the horror shows at gridlocked glamour spots like Panama City and Daytona Beach.

As for his claim that a jazzedup Jekyll would be "a good place for the people of Georgia to go," maybe Richardson doesn't realize it already is a good place for Georgians who can vacation quite nicely without a $200 per night hotel or $100 per round golf course.

Jekyll's next-door neighbor, Sea Island, already offers the high-end amenities Richardson craves. And there are paved roads from Richardson's house right to the front door of Sea Island's fabled (and monstrously expensive) Cloisters resort. If Richardson needs a swankier place, he could try Biloxi during its annual "Sleazy Politicians Week."

Right now, you can still walk Jekyll's 7.5 miles of public beach without hitting a human traffic jam. The after-dark soundtrack is still dominated by crickets and cicadas instead of pounding dance clubs or roaring ambulances.

The state of Georgia doesn't need another convention center, hotel or carload of tourists from Anywhere, U.S.A. Elected officials need to leave Jekyll alone and adhere to the state law requiring the island's facilities to remain accessible to Georgians of "average income."

Jekyll isn't the grandest, gaudiest beach around, which may be one reason why it's still among the best. Increased tourism won't change anything for the better.

Right now, the island is a joy. Let's hope Richardson and his pals don't turn laid-back Jekyll into a hideous beachfront Hyde.

(Send your e-mail comments to: alex@newnan.com)

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