Of all the traditions associated with Georgia’s tradition-rich Jekyll Island, none is more durable than its being at the eye of controversy, the latest stoked by the Jekyll Island Authority’s ongoing redevelopment program. The complaints, simmering in The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Internet web sites and elsewhere, feature invocations of M. E. Thompson, who, as acting governor, acquired the island for the state. The knock is that the Jekyll Island Authority’s management of the island is a betrayal of Thompson’s populist vision of Jekyll Island as “a state park for the plain people of Georgia.” What’s worse, in promoting development that puts much of its lodging beyond the reach of “people of average income,” the authority, critics contend, is thumbing its nose at its own enabling statute’s “mandates.” As Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Dan Chapman wrote on June 8, 2014, “…the legislature in 2006 stipulated that the Jekyll authority should ensure ‘the lowest rates reasonable and possible for the benefit of the people of the State of Georgia.’” He went on to report the opinion of an “average Georgian” that “Melvin Thompson is turning over in his grave.” In a November 20, 2015, story in the same newspaper, Tracy Brown reported that a few years after Jekyll Island was acquired by the state, “the Legislature ruled that the island remain ‘available to people of average income.’” Chapman, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 13, 2016, chronicled the latest outpouring of complaints about “commercialization” of the island pricing out “people of average income.”
This narrative also flourishes on the Internet. When the non-profit, grass roots organization, the Initiative to Project Jekyll Island, of which I’m a member, posted on its web site an invitation for viewers to respond to a survey asking them what lodging rates they consider “affordable,” it prefaced the invitation with, “Section 12-3-271 of the Georgia Code of Laws states the JIA shall use its income and revenues to manage, improve and develop Jekyll Island State Park ‘at the lowest rates reasonable and possible for the benefit of the people of the State of Georgia.’” Accordingly, one respondent wrote, “They should price hotel rooms comparable to State Park rates. Anything greater than that is in violation of the legislation that the [Jekyll Island Authority] was created under.”
It’s easy to dismiss Internet opinion surveys and journalists racing to meet deadlines. But these same themes run through publications from which one would expect greater care. In their contribution to Southern Journeys edited by Richard D. Starnes , C. Brenden Martin and June Hall McCash write “… the Authority was obligated by its charter…to create a vacation spot ‘at the lowest rates reasonable and possible for the benefit of the people of Georgia.’” Babs McDonald, in Remember Jekyll Island, quotes this passage from Martin and McCash, and then, just to make sure readers get the point, repeats it. “Calling for the operation of the public facilities of the park ‘at the lowest rates reasonable and possible for the benefit of the ordinary people of the State of Georgia,’ the Jekyll Island State Park Authority Act…left no room for doubt. Jekyll Island was to be the people’s park.” Melissa S. Weddell of Appalachian State University and James D. Bigley of Georgia Southern University, co-authors of “The Battle of the Beaches,” an article in a scholarly journal, chimed in with, “Following the 1947 state purchase, the island was designated as ‘Jekyll Island State Park’ with the mandate to be ‘available to people of average income’ with facilities and recreation opportunities to be provided at ‘the lowest rates reasonable and possible for the benefit of the people of Georgia.’’’ Finally, if anybody should know, it’s Angie Fiese, principal policy analyst in the Georgia Senate Research Office. Writing in 2013, she noted that, “In 1963, the General Assembly specified… that income arising out of the operation of the Park ‘shall be used by the Authority for the sole purpose of beautifying, improving, developing, enlarging, maintaining, administering, managing and promoting Jekyll Island State Park at the lowest rates reasonable and possible for the benefit of the ordinary people of the State of Georgia.’”
Though deeply entrenched and passed along uncritically, the narrative of a venal and lawless Jekyll Island Authority betraying populist hero M. E. Thompson’s founding vision for Jekyll Island State Park is just as deeply mistaken. My objective in what follows is to dismantle it and change the conversation about Jekyll Island.
From State Park To Jekyll Island Club Lite
The initiative that led to Georgia’s acquisition of Jekyll Island wasn’t M. E. Thompson’s but the Georgia General Assembly’s. With the end of World War II in sight, the legislature looked to the future in adopting a resolution in March of 1945 urging the governor and the state parks director “to investigate the feasibility” of establishing a seaside state park.
Effective August 22, 1945, Governor Ellis Arnall appointed his Executive Secretary M. E. Thompson Revenue Commissioner. A few days later, Japan surrendered clearing the way for Americans to turn to peacetime pursuits.
In Georgia, these included a campaign to jump-start tourism in the state, a major component being action on the March legislative resolution calling for a coastal state park. To that end, Arnall installed Thompson at the head of a committee tasked with identifying suitable property for the park.
Others have noted the state’s effort to lure out-of-state Florida-bound travelers to Georgia attractions. But included in an exhibit currently on display at the University of Georgia’s Russell Library is a document showing what a heavy lift that was, providing important context for the transfer of privately owned Jekyll Island to public ownership. The document is a brochure describing the “Know Georgia Better” campaign.
Archived in the Russell Library is a letter from Arnall dated June 1, 1946, inviting Georgians to participate in the campaign, extending through that June, July and August, the traditional summer vacation season. Of the program’s three main benefits, the most specific was that “it will pay off financially as we learn to sell Georgia to the thousands of travellers who traverse our highways each year.” (The other two were “feel good” benefits: creating “the Georgia Spirit,” and making new friends and renewing old friendships.)
The plan for realizing the program benefits was “to get every civic club in the State to go visit another club, then act as host to a visiting club.” That was, the brochure emphasized, “The main objective of the Campaign….” An office was created to handle logistics, and the advisory board consisted of officers of the Civitan, Exchange, Kiwanis, Lions, Optimist, and Rotary Clubs, the Georgia Press and Broadcasters Associations and the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs. This lineup gave the campaign a prominent presence in Macon, Thomasville, Greensboro, Atlanta, Carrollton, Covington, and Eatonton.
The brochure pitched the plan primarily as an economic development tool, saying (awkwardly) that it would enable Georgians to “realize more fully on this rich avenue to more income,” urging them, since wartime restrictions discouraging travel had been lifted, to do their traveling in the state “to keep the money at home.” The brochure concluded, “Of course, the main objective is to get Georgia ready to advertise its attractions in a national way.”
So to spur the state’s post-war recovery, Arnall, having no dedicated state tourism agency, in effect sought to turn the state’s residents into such an agency. But the highest hurdle he had to clear was persuading Georgians to familiarize themselves with the attractions of their own state.
While Arnall cobbled his long-shot “Know Georgia Better” campaign together, Thompson’s committee considered a number of possibilities, settling finally on Jekyll Island as the state’s best candidate for a public attraction that would at least temporarily detain some Florida-bound travelers. According to William Barton and June Hall McCash’s definitive history, The Jekyll Island Club, a member of the committee made the first overture to a representative of the Jekyll Island Club on August 19, 1946, just as the “Know Georgia Better” campaign was winding down.
Conversations and public statements of the state’s interest in the island ensued. But a constitutional crisis that made Georgia a national laughingstock intervened. That story is superbly told in The Three Governors Controversy, by Charles S. Bullock III, Scott E. Buchanan and Ronald Keith Gaddie (hereafter Bullock).
Elected governor in November of 1946, Eugene Talmadge inconveniently died shortly after Christmas before he could take office, setting off a free-for-all among the incumbent Ellis Arnall, M. E. Thompson the newly elected lieutenant governor, and Herman Talmadge the deceased governor-elect’s son, all laying claim to the governor’s office. The dispute was resolved when the Georgia Supreme Court in a March 19, 1947, ruling installed Thompson as acting governor until a special election to be held in November of 1948.
Thompson’s political troubles began the day the court issued its decision when Roy Harris, “the majordomo of the Talmadge forces” as Bullock describes him, put everybody on notice that the campaign for the special election a little over a year and a half away would begin immediately. Thompson was outmatched from the start as Talmadge hammered him unsparingly.
Herman Talmadge, never having held statewide office, had gained political experience managing his father’s campaigns and was roundly regarded as his political heir apparent, especially among the rural voters Eugene Talmadge had skillfully cultivated. Though the incumbent, Thompson was elevated to that position by a court order, not the voters. And his single test of statewide electoral appeal had been only modestly encouraging.
So when the state brought condemnation proceedings on June 26, 1947, in Glynn County Superior Court, taking possession of Jekyll Island the following October, Talmadge savaged Thompson, disparaging the purchase as “Thompson’s Folly,” charging, Martin and McCash write, that Thompson’s cronies wanted an island “where they can go to hide from the people and scheme to spend the state’s money for the favored few.” Thompson gamely retorted that he wanted only “to convert…Jekyll Island into a state park for the plain people of Georgia,” and had been “thinking only of the poor farmers’ sons” when he committed $675,000 in public funds for the purchase.
Two things conspired to back Thompson into a very tight political corner from which he never escaped.
First, we have to remember how elections for statewide office were conducted then. Thompson and Talmadge were contesting a Democratic Party primary to be held in September before the general election in November. Because Georgia was a one-party state, statewide general elections were so meaningless that some county election officials didn’t even bother to count the votes. It was Democratic Party primaries that populated state elective offices. And the primaries were conducted under rules that magnified the electoral weight of rural voters out of proportion to their actual numbers in the state’s population. So statewide candidates failed to cultivate rural voters at their peril. Eugene Talmadge, a master of the art, reportedly boasted that he’d never campaigned in a county with a streetcar line. The county unit system, as it was called, so blatantly disadvantaged Georgia’s urban voters that the U. S. Supreme Court struck it down in 1962.
Talmadge’s charge, then, that Thompson’s acquisition of Jekyll Island served the interests of some nameless “favored few” was a damaging imputation of elitism that Thompson could defeat only by putting himself forward as a champion of the “plain people,” the “poor farmers’ sons,” the “dirt farmers” for whose votes he and Talmadge were competing. In his monumental Speak Now Against the Day, John Edgerton captured the tone of the campaign in which Thompson’s effort to beat Talmadge at his own populist, white supremacist game backfired with Talmadge contemptuously dismissing him as “M. E. Too.”
Second, while I’ve found no record identifying the “favored few” that Talmadge accused Thompson of cultivating, there were plausible candidates around that lent force to Talmadge’s attack. Talmadge likely knew about the 1945 legislative resolution calling for the establishment of a coastal state park, but it served his political purposes to conjure up images of a Jekyll Island more closely resembling the former Jekyll Island Club and the Sea Island Company’s exclusive Cloister, both retreats for the spectacularly “favored few.” That wasn’t much of a stretch because the Sea Island Company’s co-founder Alfred W. (“Bill”) Jones had been deeply involved in the Jekyll Island Club’s affairs during the 1930s, even considering at one point what appears to have been a defensive purchase of Jekyll Island to prevent it from falling into the hands of competitors. Sea Island Company President J. D. Compton oversaw the club’s affairs during World War II and, write McCash and McCash, by “the summer of 1946 Jekyll Island was being overseen entirely by the Sea Island Company.“
Further eroding Thompson’s credibility on the issue, when Jekyll Island State Park opened for visitors on March 5, 1948, it didn’t look much like a haven for poor farmers’ sons. With the decisive primary looming the following September, Thompson had only one summer season to build a constituency for the park to blunt Talmadge’s “Thompson’s Folly” attacks.
According to Tyler E. Bagwell’s Jekyll Island: A State Park, the strategy was to pitch the island to groups, enticing the maximum number of people to it in the shortest time. So 50 high school graduating classes booked for the month of June. Other visitors included Boy Scout Troops, 4-H Clubs, a college fraternity, and the Pirates Club, composed then of girls from Glynn Academy. In August of 1948 1,500 visitors were on hand for the Miss Georgia State Parks Beauty Pageant. Activities available at the park included badminton, croquet, tennis, and bicycling, among others. Early photographs give the impression of something like a rather proper country club, with no poor farmers’ sons in evidence.
While Thompson claimed during a bitter political campaign to have thought “only of the poor farmers’ sons” when he purchased Jekyll, back on the island his State Parks Director Charlie Morgan was hosting croquet-playing fraternity boys.
In any case, as Bullock reports, Thompson’s exertions were unavailing. Whatever Thompson was selling, not enough plain people and poor farmers’ sons were buying to spare him a crushing defeat at Talmadge’s hands. Thompson carried only 29 of the state’s 159 counties, most of them in cities and towns where long abuse by Talmadge’s father, super-populist Eugene, had fostered “anybody-but-Talmadge” sentiment.
In early 1949, Bagwell notes, then Governor Talmadge, concluding that Jekyll Island State Park was an unsustainable drain on the parks system’s resources, appointed a committee to make recommendations about the island’s future, selling it being an option. Talmadge also instructed the committee to find someone to whom to lease the island for the remainder of his term. The committee accepted the bid from accomplished hotelier Barney B. Whitaker, who operated the island until early 1951, losing about $30,000 for his troubles notwithstanding a generous contract with the state.
The budget climate at the time makes starkly clear why Jekyll Island’s future as a state park was precarious. Converting the island into a state park was without precedent for Georgia. According to Billy Townsend’s 2001 history of the state parks system, it wasn’t yet 20 years old when Jekyll was acquired. During much of that time, parks were developed in cooperation with the federal government, which bought exhausted farmland as Recreation Demonstration Areas, deployed the Civilian Conservation Corps to outfit them with rustic cabins, camp grounds, lakes, etc., and then turned them over to the state to operate as parks. In a mere two years in the mid-1930s, this cooperative arrangement increased state park acreage from 500 to 5,000. Still, for the parks system the 1940s were a period “of skimpy budgets,” Townsend says, and administrative instability.
It’s not surprising that the state parks were getting short shrift in the 1940s. Talmadge’s attack on Jekyll’s acquisition as “folly” may not have been empty rhetoric, considering the state’s other urgent unmet needs. Bullock cites a revealing example. The previous year, during Eugene Talmadge’s successful campaign, he promised to pave every road traveled by a mail carrier or a school bus. But one of his opponents estimated that 86,000 miles of those roads were unpaved and that paving them all would cost over 10 times the state’s entire annual revenue.
In keeping with its “small government, low tax” philosophy pre-dating the Civil War, Georgia in 1948 had only modest personal and corporate income taxes and no general sales tax. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, most of the state’s revenue was generated by a motley assortment of licenses and other fees. And, Bullock observes, when Thompson, as acting governor, asked the General Assembly to impose a 3 percent general sales tax, it refused.
It’s a further measure of how risky Jekyll Island’s repurposing as a state park was that it wasn’t exhausted farmland but an already developed property whose costs had been borne by the planet’s deepest pockets when it was privately owned. Even so, according to McCash and McCash, what Munsey’s Magazine described as “the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible” club in the world, was chronically in debt, the club house, now the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, rarely returned a profit, improvements were funded by voluntary “subscriptions” and in its last declining years the club resorted to timber sales to meet expenses.
Also dimming Jekyll Island’s prospects as a state park was the lack of automobile access to it. Thompson had proposed during the campaign for the 1948 special election a multi-million-dollar causeway and bridge connecting Jekyll Island to the mainland, confidently asserting that the project could be completed in a year. In fact, his estimate was off by nearly a decade.
So when Talmadge in January of 1950 was reelected governor for a full term, defeating M. E. Thompson again, he persuaded the General Assembly to enact the Jekyll Island State Park Authority Act, transferring Jekyll Island’s administration from the state parks department to that of a public authority, where it remains today. The authority’s original five members were to be appointed by the governor.
Among the five initial appointees to the authority was Sea Island Company President J. D. Compton, whose tenure was pivotal in a way that hasn’t been fully appreciated. (The Sea Island Company-Jekyll Island connection remains intact: Governor Deal recently appointed A. W. “Bill” Jones III, former owner, Chairman and CEO of the Sea Island Company to the Jekyll Island Authority.) Though Compton was only one of five authority members, because of his intimate familiarity with Jekyll Island, his authority colleagues being out of their depth by comparison, we can suppose that his influence was far out of proportion to his position as just one of the five members. He persuaded the others to engage Robert and Company Associates, an Atlanta-based engineering firm, to work up a master plan for the island’s development. The planners, Martin and McCash write, proposed “a network of roads, residential subdivisions, a shopping center, a small airport, golf courses and beachfront development of motels, condominiums, and amusement parks.”
What’s striking about the plan is how much it owes to the Jekyll Island Club and how little to Thompson’s purported vision of a public retreat for poor farmers’ sons. Except for the name and its status as a public amenity, there’s little here that resembles the New Deal era state parks that Georgia had developed in collaboration with the federal government. This wasn’t a plan for a seaside version of Civilian Conservation Corps-era Vogel State Park but for a publicly owned scaled back Jekyll Island Club.
The members of the Jekyll Island Club hadn’t contemplated anything as extensive as the consultants’ master plan did, but they, too, had subdivided parts of the island into a limited number of building lots on which members built 15 “cottages,” the survivors now restored as major attractions in the Jekyll Island Historic District. The authority, Bagwell notes, subleased several of the cottages during the 1950s for $150 a month. And although they weren’t called condominiums, club facilities included two sets of apartments available for purchase by members. One was the six-unit Sans Souci and the other a portion of the Club House Annex.
Poor farmers’ sons may or may not have been uppermost in Thompson’s mind when he purchased Jekyll Island for the state, but they were nowhere in the minds of the authority’s consultants when they wrote a small airport into their master plan, even though both Savannah and Jacksonville offered air service at the time. What may have inspired the consultants were a few Jekyll Island Club members who flew their own planes to the island, landing them, judging by photographs in McCash and McCash, on the beach. The consultants may also have been influenced by the construction of St. Simons’ McKinnon Airport, a project undertaken at the urging of Howard Coffin, co-founder of the Sea Island Company, whose guests would be served by the airport.
The Jekyll Island master plan doubtless included golf courses because there were courses already on the island, many club members becoming both avid golfers and tennis players after those sports were imported to the United States. In fact, the current Great Dunes Park bears the same name as a seaside golf course that was a favorite of club members.
Even the Red Bugs, the electric vehicles now for rent at the Jekyll airport, are directly descended from ancestral namesakes popular among club members in the 1920s and 1930s. They were named for the island’s chiggers.
Considering that the newly installed Jekyll Island Authority modeled the public amenity they oversaw after the privately owned Jekyll Island Club in so many respects, it was probably inevitable that by the mid-1950s there would be complaints around the state about rates for Jekyll Island lodging, Martin and McCash write, “far out of reach of the average Georgian.” In fact the tradition of complaining about prices at Jekyll Island facilities, still with us today, predates the authority’s existence. Even during Thompson’s brief oversight of the island as what his parks director Charlie Morgan expansively promised would be a “paradise for the average Georgia citizen,” some newspapers, reports Bagwell, were already complaining about prices for meals served in the former Jekyll Island Clubhouse’s Grand Dining Room where dinner went for $2.50, about $25 in current dollars.
In “Georgia Odyssey” James C. Cobb gives a telling account of why the state’s average citizens might have thought a Jekyll Island visit beyond their means. In 1958 the average Georgia factory worker was earning $60.45 a week, $22 a week less than “his northern counterparts,” a wage in current dollars putting a family of four at about the federal poverty line. “In 1950,” he writes, “low-wage industries had accounted for 83 percent of the state’s manufacturing jobs.” Agricultural workers surely were even worse off.
Things happen for multiple reasons of course, but given the political climate at the time, M. E. Thompson’s invocation of “plain people” and “poor farmers’ sons” during the 1947-48 campaign against Talmadge is hard to credit as a straightforward statement of the state’s policy in purchasing Jekyll Island. A likelier motive for the acquisition and the island’s subsequent development, guided less by a traditional state park model than the resort model governing it to this day, was the state’s eagerness for a share of Florida-bedazzled travelers.
Even the Jekyll Island Club’s leadership had cast a wary eye on Florida. McCash and McCash write about the post-World War I period, “Membership dropped precipitously following the war years, in part because of the demise of aging members but also because of the growing resorts of Florida…”
Florida’s appeal to tourists got a huge boost from the construction of the Dixie Highway between 1915 and 1926. In Dixie Highway, her absorbing account of the development and far-reaching impact of the highway, Tammy Ingram chronicles its formation from “hundreds of short, rough, local roads stitched together into a continuous route [looping] nearly 6,000 miles from Lake Michigan…to Miami Beach and back again. “ This ambitious project was “the brainchild,” Ingram writes, “of Carl Graham Fisher, an opportunistic auto-industry magnate and real-estate developer from Indianapolis.” Fisher saw the Dixie Highway as a road system for shuttling tourists between the Midwest and his development on what became Miami Beach. The Dixie Highway is important for the Jekyll Island story because it included the segment of what ultimately became U. S. 17 passing by St. Simons and Jekyll Island before connecting with U. S. 1 in northern Florida.
In Island Time, her history of St. Simons Island, Jingle Davis notes that the allure of Florida was a major factor in spurring post-World War II development on St. Simons, where “tourist promoters lured migrating snowbirds off U. S. 17,” with, among other things, “large lighted signs pointing the way to St. Simons and Sea Island.”
And the state’s reliance on Jekyll Island to vacuum up tourist dollars headed for Florida was evident again in October of 1958, a little over a decade after Jekyll Island opened to the public as a state park. According to Melissa Fay Greene’s lively Last Man Out, an aide to then Governor Marvin Griffin extended to the survivors of the Springhill Mine disaster in Canada an invitation to recover on Jekyll Island at Georgia’s expense. The aide, in a panic that “someone in Florida was going to come up with this plan” first, climbed out on a very long limb, conveying the offer to the miners without first clearing it with the governor. Arch-segregationist Governor Griffin was livid when he learned that one of the miners was African-American for whom segregated facilities had to be provided.
Perhaps the most vivid example of the desperate effort to cash in on Florida-bound tourist traffic is an incident recounted by Martin and McCash. In the summer of 1962, the Brunswick, Georgia, police department was sending units out to U. S. 17 to stop travelers on their way to Florida, escorting them to the office of the Brunswick Chamber of Commerce where, to the travelers’ immense relief, they were offered a free night on Jekyll Island. There may be some, but I don’t know of another case in which police have been drafted into service in this way.
Fifty odd years on, Jekyll Island has enjoyed a measure of success in not just capturing traffic to Florida but reversing it. In my unscientific survey, the out-of-state license plate I see most often on Jekyll Island is Florida’s.
Maybe M. E. Thompson was thinking “only of the poor farmers’ sons” when he ponied up for Jekyll Island. But the political and economic climate at the time argues against taking at face value things he said while in a defensive crouch during a bitter political campaign for the 1948 special election. A better clue to what ultimately motivated the purchase is Governor Arnall’s appointing Thompson, his Revenue Commissioner, to head up the search for a seaside state park site while the governor was launching his post-war economic recovery scheme.
Practicing Law Without a License
Ever since enactment of the Jekyll Island State Park Authority Act in 1950 removed the island from the State Parks System and transferred its management to the Jekyll Island Authority, people have scoured the act, as amended, for evidence that it obligates the authority legally to implement what some take Melvin Thompson’s vision to have been. But reading the few code fragments they’ve seized on through the prism of Thompson’s populist campaign rhetoric, they’ve egregiously misunderstood them.
The original act consists of 25 sections in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. Of those only three are even candidates for such legal requirements, only two of the three surviving to the present day. Despite now running to 53 code sections, the act still includes only two that look to some observers like requirements binding the authority to what they think the original Thompson plan was. I’ll consider them in turn.
“Section 12-3-135. Powers of authority generally” grants to the authority several broad powers, including one that some people are still trying to convert into a mandate. It is the power “to do any other things necessary or proper to beautify, improve, and render self-supporting the island park, to make its facilities available to people of average income, and to advertise its beauties to the world.”
There are any number of reasons why this language can’t be taken to mandate anything. For one thing, if it amounts to a mandate to make the island’s facilities “available to people of average income,” it’s also a mandate to “render self-supporting the island park.” According to Bagwell, Jekyll Island had already cost the state $6 million, about $53 million in current dollars, by 1956. While covering much of its overhead from its income, it has never been self-supporting for an extended period. The authority has received to varying degrees over the years both operating and capital funds from the state, which is exactly what one would expect since another of the powers this code section grants is the power “to hold, use, administer, and expend, for any purposes of the authority, such sum or sums as may… be appropriated by authority of the General Assembly.”
Martin and McCash mention a “legislative mandate that Jekyll Island must be economically self-sufficient by 1972,” but the authority missed that target by seven years, receiving in 1979 an operating subsidy from the General Assembly of $1,140,000. I was advised in a private communication from Eric Garvey, former authority communications director, that there have been no further operating subsidies from the General Assembly since. As The Rome Herald-Tribune reported several months later, the current “parking fee” to get on the island was imposed to partially offset the loss of such funds.
But a 2000 report of the state Senate Coastal Tourism Study Committee said, “At its inception, the Jekyll Island State Park Authority was intended to become self-sufficient to the point that the Authority would eventually not need state funding to operate itself or the island. This goal has not been reached; as a result, the authority asks for and receives funds from the Georgia General Assembly.” Indeed as recently as 2014, the authority reported a $3.6 million net loss, according to Associated Press reporter Russ Bynam. And its 2014 Master Plan, available on the authority’s web site, acknowledged, “The State is currently assisting with the bond payments for Jekyll Island’s new Convention Center.” I’m not an accountant but it seems that the state’s assumption of bond payments that would otherwise have to be made out of the authority’s operating revenue is functionally an operating subsidy. It’s interesting in this connection that nowhere does the Master Plan talk about “self-sufficiency” but only of “economic sustainability.”
The treatment of the “self-sufficiency mandate” by both the authority and the state shows that there is no much mandate. And other powers the act grants the authority make clear that none of its general powers are mandates. That’s not what powers are. For example, two such powers are to borrow money for any of the authority’s corporate purposes and to sell alcohol on any property it controls and operates. It’s absurd to suppose that those powers require the authority to borrow money and sell alcohol. It does both but is legally required to do neither. It’s the same story for the oft-cited power to make the island’s facilities “available to people of average income.”
The other code section endlessly cited as evidence of the authority’s legal duty to operate Jekyll as a park for “the plain people of Georgia” is “Section 12-3-271. Utilization of income and revenues.” It says “All income and revenues arising out of the operation of Jekyll Island State Park, and all gifts, grants, appropriations, or bond or loan proceeds made specifically for Jekyll Island State Park, shall be used by the authority for the sole purpose of beautifying, improving, developing, enlarging, maintaining, administering, managing, and promoting Jekyll Island State Park at the lowest rates reasonable and possible for the benefit of the people of the State of Georgia.” This version differs by only one word from the original 1950 version. Whereas the 1950 act spoke of the “ordinary people of the State of Georgia,” the current language omits ‘ordinary.’
This is unmistakably a mandate, spelling out how the authority’s income “shall be used.” But it doesn’t mandate what it’s roundly thought to. When we were all taught how to diagram sentences, this language would have misled almost no one. Hardly anybody knows how to do that anymore, but no matter. The Lake Lanier Authority’s enabling law helps us out here. Enacted twelve years after the statute establishing the Jekyll Island Authority, the Lake Lanier statute borrowed heavily from its predecessor, even including among its general powers the power to “render self-supporting the island park [and] to make its facilities available to people of average income.”
Section 12-3-318 mandating how the Lake Lanier Authority is to use its income is an expanded version of the corresponding section of the Jekyll Island Authority’s enabling law. The portions of this section relevant for my purposes read,
(a) All income, revenues, gifts, grants, appropriations, bond or loan proceeds, and rights and privileges of value of every nature accruing to the authority shall be used:
Primarily for the purpose of beautifying, improving, developing, maintaining, administering, managing, and promoting the islands in Lake Lanier….
(b) The authority shall accomplish the purposes provided in subsection (a) of this Code section at the lowest rates reasonable and possible for the benefit of the people of the State of Georgia…
What “lowest rates reasonable and possible” clearly means here is that the islands are to be beautified “at the lowest rates reasonable and possible,” improved “at the lowest rates reasonable and possible,” developed “at the lowest rates reasonable and possible,” maintained “at the lowest rates reasonable and possible,” etc.
That’s the only possible reading of this language, leaving no doubt that the corresponding language in the Jekyll Island Authority’s enabling statute, from which this provision was borrowed, is to be read the same way. So contrary to the interpretation of historians, newspaper reporters, tourism researchers, grass roots activists and others, the storied “at the lowest rates reasonable and possible” language has absolutely nothing to do with rates visitors to Jekyll Island are to be charged for use of the facilities. Both the Jekyll Island and Lake Lanier enabling statutes’ mandates regarding the use of income are frugality and anti-corruption requirements. They mandate that the two authorities are to use their income not to line their members’ pockets and those of their cronies, but to purchase, at the best prices they can get, goods and services for the public good.
Even granting that neither of these code sections requires the Jekyll Island Authority, in spite of widespread belief to the contrary, to realize M. E. Thompson’s “state park for the plain people of Georgia” vision, does that mean that the authority may do anything it wishes? Could it, as far as its enabling law is concerned, turn Jekyll Island into something like the Sea Island Company’s Cloister?
We might think so given the inclusion among the act’s general powers of one so open-ended that it appears to allow the authority to do whatever it likes. This is the power “to do all things necessary or convenient to carry out the powers expressly given in this part, and to do any and all other acts and things which this part authorizes or requires to be done, whether or not included in the general powers mentioned in this Code section.” But even though this language makes clear that the specific powers granted by the act aren’t exhaustive, the ones granted but not specified are only those, whatever they might be, necessary for carrying out the requirements of the act as a whole. Since the authority is bound by the act as a whole to operate Jekyll Island as a public amenity, it would be violating its charter if it priced island facilities at a level beyond the means of all but, say, the top 1 percent.
Several years ago, the authority seemed to many to be flirting with just this breach when it was on the verge of turning over the portion of the island still available for development to the company that brought us Reynolds Plantation on Lake Oconee in Greene County. While public outcry and the Great Recession conspired to bring the authority to its senses, through all those exertions no one ever succeeded in identifying any bright-line legal standard for determining when the authority has taken the island across the line from public amenity to a condition exceeding its powers.
When the authority undertook the latest revision of its Master Plan (2014), it invited interested parties to submit recommendations on a variety of topics. One such recommendation, from the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, purported to identify just that boundary. The recommendation said,
Jekyll Island’s accommodations should provide a range of price points, but if the state park’s affordability mandate [sic] is to be honored, the majority of the island’s lodgings should be affordable by the majority of people. The upscale Jekyll Island Club Hotel and the soon to be built four-star Jekyll convention hotel will account for nearly one-third of the island’s hotel rooms, more than enough to accommodate high-end Jekyll visitors. Lodgings priced with average income citizens in mind should, therefore, be the norm for future hotel redevelopment projects, four of which are likely to be undertaken during the next few years.
I have no idea how the author knows that nearly a third of the island’s lodging is “more than enough to accommodate high-end Jekyll visitors.” But the claim is that a roughly one-third/two-thirds split between “high-end” lodging and lodging priced for people of “average” income is the boundary line between a public amenity and one not public enough to be within the authority’s statutory powers. That’s an interesting way to fix that boundary. But there’s no bright-line legal requirement that compels it or any similar boundary line. It’s nothing more than the author’s favorite candidate for the line the authority may not cross on this matter. Indeed, it’s exactly because there aren’t any such bright-line legal standards telling us when the authority has abrogated its duty to operate Jekyll Island as a public amenity that controversies over that very point have been so durable historically, persisting to this day. Frustrating as the absence of any such clearly defined boundary is to the authority’s detractors, that same feature of its enabling law is critical to ensuring the authority’s flexibility to respond to changing economic conditions in a way that maintains “economic sustainability,” if not self-sufficiency.
State Parks Aren’t What They Used To Be
Tracing the history of Jekyll Island, the New Georgia Encyclopedia says that after a year as a state park, Jekyll Island’s maintenance and operational costs were so great that “the best way to operate the island was determined to be via a state-sponsored authority, so that the island could operate more like a business than a department of state government.”
People who believe that Jekyll Island should operate more like a traditional largely government funded state park and less like a business are apparently unaware that even our state parks don’t operate like traditional state parks anymore. A document entitled “Defining a Sustainable and Responsible Future” prepared by Division of State Parks and Historic Sites Director Becky Kelley for a public meeting in 2013 pointed out that since fiscal year 2009 state appropriations for the division have been reduced by 50 percent. A directive to be more self-sufficient accompanied those reductions. Whereas on the traditional model of the publicly funded park system, there was little or no need for it, said Kelley, the division has to “chart a path toward a sustainable state parks system that strikes a proper balance between state funds and self-sufficiency, and between stewardship and revenue generation,” exactly the balance that Jekyll Island has had to strike since at least 1950.
To comply with this directive, the division has had to develop business plans, available for your perusal on its web site, for each park and historical site it administers. If you wade through a few of them, you’ll see that they all end at the same place: with a chart showing actual visits for 2010, projected visits for 2012 through 2015, operating expenses, revenue, and what percentage of those expenses were or are projected to be covered by the revenue for each of those years. A plan’s objective is to show a higher percentage of costs covered by revenue in 2015 than in 2010. That percentage figure improves when costs and revenue converge, as a result of cost cutting by reducing services, increasing revenue by asking patrons to pay more to use park facilities, or both.
We can see this dynamic at work if we convert into current dollars an interesting figure from the early years of the park system. In 1939, reports Townsend, one could rent a cottage sleeping six at Pine Mountain State Park, now FDR State Park, for $20 a week. In current dollars that comes to $342. A cabin sleeping six at FDR State Park now rents for $1015 a week, about three times what would have resulted from inflation alone.
Further blurring the distinction between Jekyll Island and the parks administered by the Division of State Parks and Historic Sites is the fact that several of our parks have been “outsourced” to private management companies. That’s not without precedent. As far back as the 1940s, Townsend tells us, the few parks with lodging leased those facilities to private operators. And in the 1990s under Governor Zell Miller’s initiative to shrink the size of state government, the division was required to turn over “as many operations as possible to private individuals or private companies,” a policy that was abandoned in 2001 when the parks that had been managed by private concessionaires for four years were returned to parks system operations.
But reported Amy Wenk on October 5, 2012, in the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the state contracted with Florida-based Corel Hospitality to assume operation of Unicoi and Amicalola Falls state parks. Corel, whose web site describes it as a “full-service hospitality management and investment company specializing in resorts, hotels, clubs and residential communities,” committed to investing a combined $9 million for upgrades at the two parks. I don’t know what the status of the Unicoi upgrades is, but having sampled Corel’s handiwork at Amicalola, I can attest to the quality of the work they did. However, quality doesn’t come cheap: weekend peak season (mid-October) rates at Amicalola are now comparable to peak season (mid-summer) rates for Jekyll Island’s oceanfront hotels. That represents a sharp increase from pre-Corel rates at Amicalola.
In addition to Amicalola and Unicoi, Corel Hospitality now also operates the lodges at Little Ocmulgee, and George T. Bagby state parks, as well as the resorts at Brasstown Valley and Lake Blackshear, the latter two state-owned properties administered by a public authority like the Jekyll Island Authority.
Nor are these developments peculiar to Georgia. Rather, they reflect a national trend among the states to shift costs from taxpayers to park patrons. As Sandy Johnson reported on May 26, 2014, in The Washington Post, “State general revenue for parks has plunged from a nationwide average of 59 percent of park funding in fiscal 1990 to 33 percent in fiscal 2012.”
Critics who believe, then, that the Jekyll Island Authority is exceeding its lawful powers and betraying M. E. Thompson’s founding vision have every right to make their case. But neither history nor the legal materials on which they rely ratify their claims. The Jekyll Island Authority, like the rest of us, is certainly not above criticism. But critics will have more credibility if they recognize their arguments with the authority for the straightforward policy disagreements they really are.
With new threats, such as casinos, a spaceport, offshore oil drilling and others we don’t even know about clouding Jekyll Island’s future, those who care about it, including me, need more credibility than well-worn myths and misconstrued out-of-context Georgia code shards confer.