Jekyll Island offers big-city amenities even the most sophisticated Atlantan can enjoy: golf courses, a waterpark, an exquisitely restored historic district, hotels topping out at $479 a night, and ocean-side homes going for $700,000.
Little about Jekyll evokes rural Georgia.
Yet state and federal officials, desperate to arrange financing for a high-end hotel, embraced a loan guarantee program intended to boost development in rural communities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will guarantee two loans totaling $15 million taken out by developers of the under-construction Westin Jekyll Island. It’s one of the largest guarantees ever approved for a project in Georgia.
Wrangling the guarantee underscores the financial gyrations the state is undergoing to transform the state park into a convention hub and tourist destination. Last fall, the Authority came up with roughly $7 million in bed-tax revenue and other financial incentives spread out over a decade. Earlier, they tried to tap a special tourism tax break, but the governor quashed the plan as unfair to competing hotels.
“Jekyll is not a rural area – it’s a state park, a commercial (district) with some residential,” said Rep. Jeff Chapman, a Republican from nearby Brunswick and frequent critic of government subsidies for private business. “That money should be focused on helping rural areas to develop, not to help a Westin.
Quinton Robinson, who runs USDA’s rural development office in Georgia, said the Westin fits the agency’s rural eligibility requirements.
“I’m from a little small town, Gordon, near Macon. That’s rural,” he said. But “our regulations are very limited in giving us the ability to have discretion to say this (project) has more of a rural purpose than another.”
The Jekyll Island Authority has struggled for years to revitalize the business district. The state-controlled Authority loses millions of dollars in revenue each year without a convention hotel.