Online: Jekyll Island Convention Center: http://www.jekyllisland.com/Revitalization/RevitalizationSites/ConventionCenter.aspx
JEKYLL ISLAND — After six years of planning and 18 months of construction, Georgia officials on Sunday celebrated the opening of Jekyll Island's new beachfront convention center — the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar makeover aimed at winning back tourist groups and business groups that had given up on the state park's dated amenities.
Overall, Georgia taxpayers spent $50 million to give Jekyll Island an updated meeting space, a beachside park and rerouted roads to funnel visitors to those attractions. Gov. Nathan Deal joined more than 300 people Sunday in celebrating the opening of the 128,000-square-foot convention center as 1,400 members of the Georgia Rural Water Association were kicking off its first conference.
With most of the construction now behind them, Jekyll Island administrators still face a big challenge: to justify the expensive new digs by turning around years of declining tourism and lost convention groups that moved their annual meetings to other beach resorts, sapping the island's ability to pay for itself without help from taxpayers.
After a ribbon-cutting ceremony that was moved indoors as rains from Tropical Storm Alberto's outer bands sprayed the Georgia coast, Deal said he's "very confident" Georgia taxpayers' investment in Jekyll Island will pay off as more convention groups book time here.
"I think it'll turn around rather quickly," Deal said. "Of course, you have to be able to depend on that convention traffic to be able to do that. And now that this is open, that convention traffic will start to flow."
Officials on the island 70 miles south of Savannah say they've already lined up more than 200 convention groups through 2016, worth about $40 million in total business. About 66 conferences are on the books for this year, barely half the state's eventual target of 120 conventions per year.
Still, two convention hotels being developed by private partners won't be finished until 2014. Some groups have been leery of booking conferences until the hotels are done.
"I anticipate, until our hotels are open, we're still going to be seeing some extremely tight budgets here," said Jones Hooks, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority that manages the state park. "Nothing's easy on Jekyll Island as far as getting where we need to go. But I am totally convinced we are on the right path."
Known as "Georgia's jewel," Jekyll Island was a winter getaway owned by wealthy northern industrialists before the state bought it in 1947. By law, two-thirds of its land must remain off-limits to development. Also, unlike other state parks, Jekyll Island is supposed to pay for itself entirely through the revenue it generates from visitors, residents and grants.
But state budget figures show Jekyll Island's expenses have exceeded revenues by $2 million to $4.9 million each year since 2008. Hooks said the only way the island could stay in the black was to dip into funds intended to go toward maintaining and improving its historic structures from the 1800s.
The root of the problem: the island's most modern amenities didn't age well. By the time the state got behind a revitalization plan in 2006, the convention center was 45 years old. No new hotels had been built in three decades. Convention groups complained of musty rooms and outdated meeting halls. While tourism numbers have shown slight increases since 2010, visitation overall remains down by more than 28 percent from a peak of 2.1 million visitors in 1988 to about 1.5 million last year.
"Some of the hotels were going down. The owners were starting to stop putting money into them," said Marshall Kennemer, executive director of the National Guard Association of Georgia, which is bringing about 300 citizen-soldiers and their families to Jekyll Island for its convention June 8.
Unlike other groups that moved their meetings to Florida and other beach resorts, the National Guard group has stuck with Jekyll Island for more than 20 years. Kennemer, a retired brigadier general, said he has already toured the new convention center three times and is very impressed with its sweeping ocean views, sparkling new kitchen and vast meeting halls that can hold up to 6,900 guests.
"It doesn't compare," Kennemer said. "This is a modern facility."
Convention hotels, which will add 335 rooms, are being privately funded. But Georgia taxpayers had to foot the bill for Jekyll Island's convention center and 20-acre Great Dunes Park that faces the beach.
A spreadsheet breaking down the $50 million in costs shows the convention center's furniture and fixtures alone cost $1.5 million. The tab for its automatic window blinds was $66,200. Officials spent $370,563 to preserve and relocate trees uprooted from the construction zone, while the receipt for 86 new street lights totaled $450,109.
Not everybody's thrilled with the expenditures. William Temple, a retired government graphic designer in neighboring Brunswick who once had an art studio on Jekyll Island, said the state should never have spent so much on Jekyll during a recession. He's not shy about criticizing government spending. Temple co-founded the Golden Isles Tea Party back in 2009 and remains an active member.
"There is a lot of animosity about people in Atlanta taking tax money and throwing it to Jekyll Island," Temple said. "They needed to spend that money on other things and put it on hold until the economy comes back. I've been out to the old convention center, and there was nothing wrong with it."
Hooks said Jekyll is also dipping into its own money to spruce up beyond the convention center. Staffers are getting extra training. Stop signs are getting fresh paint jobs. Janitors are getting Polo-style uniform shirts to wear to work instead of T-shirts.
It's all an attempt to get away from a period when "there wasn't too much excitement" about Jekyll Island, even among the staff, Hooks said.
"There were times we would have sales team meetings where you were just trying to hold the status quo, going after the core business because there was nothing new to sell," Hooks said. "My message to my employees now is: We no longer have to be apologetic for anything."