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Future of Jekyll Island's Proposed $40 million Westin Hotel Up in Air; New Lodging
is Vital to Revitalization Project and Success of New Convention Center

Already, Lost Group Bookings Have Cost Authority $3.8 million

By Nikki Wiley, The Brunswick News, Ga.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 24, 2012--Little more can be done on the state level to help Jekyll Island close on a $40 million hotel vital to its revitalization project, members of Glynn County's state delegation say.

The 200-room Westin hotel hit a roadblock in September when the state said a tax incentive the hotel's financing was dependent upon would be delayed because of complications determining what projects qualify.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who has final say in granting the incentive designed to promote tourism from out of state, has since said the hotel will not qualify because it would compete with existing hotels, leaving the Westin's developer, Jekyll Landmark Associates, trying to find a way to back its $25 million loan.

Sen. William Ligon, R-Waverly, voted for the Georgia Tourism Development Act but acknowledges its flaws.

"I think some people thought that this is an automatic shoo-in for every project," Ligon said.

Ligon has since spoken with the governor's office about Jekyll's Westin project, but he says there isn't much more to be done. There are no other state programs that can help the Westin finance the rest of its $25 million loan.

"I'm not aware of any other state program that is available; however, I do think that it is certainly still a viable project without state aide," Ligon said.

The state has already spent $50 million on the island's new convention center, a sign that the governor is invested in the success of Jekyll Island, Ligon said.

Rep. Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons, has also spoken with the governor about the project and says he remains "guardedly optimistic" the Jekyll Island Authority is moving toward reaching a successful deal without state help.

"This is very important to our community and has to be accomplished promptly," Atwood said.

The Westin is a vital piece of the puzzle on the island that is trying to rebrand itself and attract a new generation of visitors. Other revitalization projects include the new convention center that opened in May and a Beach Village retail center. The Beach Village is also on hold until the Westin's loan is closed because a provision of the loan given to the Jekyll Island Authority to finance the village mandates that the Westin be definite.

Two other hotels, including a Hyatt Place and a beach-front extension of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, are also planned but none has broken ground.

The Westin was originally scheduled to break ground in September and be completed by mid-2014.

Without adequate lodging, Jekyll isn't able to support large organizations at its new convention center that is the centerpiece of the island's revitalization. Delays in hotel construction on Jekyll have caused at least seven groups to back out of plans to hold conventions in 2014, costing the Jekyll Island Authority $3.8 million.

State Rep.-elect Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, was critical of Jekyll's original $342 million, 63-acre revitalization plan with development company Linger Longer. The plan has since been scaled back, but Chapman still isn't convinced that parts of the project are in the best interest of Jekyll Island or Georgia.

He said it was a mistake for Jekyll to try to build such a high-end hotel and the island should carry out its revitalization plan on its own dime.

"We want to see Jekyll go forward with recovery; however, to give such tax breaks to a company like the Westin, I would really question the wisdom of it," Chapman said.

The Westin franchise produces some of the most high-end hotels, Chapman said, and might not be affordable for middle class families.

"If you look at the original purpose of Jekyll, it was to provide a place for people to come and enjoy, average Georgians," Chapman said.

Jekyll is considered Georgia's Jewel for its beauty, he said, not because of the hotels built on its land.

"People don't go to Jekyll for the hotel," Chapman said. "People go to Jekyll for the natural beauty and what Jekyll is."

Nevertheless, Jekyll Landmark Associates continues to look for financing, said Eric Garvey, chief communications officer for the authority.

"They're progressing with getting their financial package revised to meet the financial requirements of the bank, but there's no news to report right now," Garvey said.


(c)2012 The Brunswick News (Brunswick, Ga.)

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