- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2015

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - After a decade and $195 million dedicated to upgrades aimed at turning around years of sagging tourism and convention business, Jekyll Island is pausing to celebrate some big changes at the state park.

Musty hotels and outdated amenities were blamed for dwindling visitation when Georgia officials got behind a sweeping revitalization plan for the island in 2006. At the time, the Jekyll Island convention center was 45 years old and no new hotels had been built in three decades.

Gov. Nathan Deal is scheduled to arrive Monday for what’s been billed as a “rededication” ceremony touting all that’s new at the state-owned island park, though several projects are still in the works.

The 128,000-square-foot convention center overlooking the beach is barely three years old and has a neighboring 8-acre park. In May, Jekyll Island finally opened a 200-room convention hotel. A new retail village of restaurants and souvenir shops followed in July. Georgia taxpayers have invested $75 million in restoring luster to the island known as “Georgia’s jewel,” a winter getaway for wealthy industrialists before the state bought it in 1947. Private partners are funding the rest.

“We’ve come a long way with the investment that’s been made,” said Jones Hooks, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority, the state agency that manages the island. “With most of the public facilities complete, it’s time to bring awareness back to the citizens of Georgia that they own Jekyll Island and rededicate the island to all the people of Georgia.”

By the numbers, Jekyll Island’s fortunes appear to be on an upswing. The number of cars and buses coming onto the island jumped from 785,855 in 2012, the year the convention center opened, to 972,544 last year - an increase of more than 23 percent. Still, traffic has yet to match the island’s peak year of 1990, when 1.02 million vehicles were counted.

Jekyll Island no longer tracks tourism by estimating its total number of annual visitors, Hooks said.

Meanwhile, convention and meeting bookings have risen sharply - from 131 to 216 - between 2012, when the convention center opened mid-year, and 2015. The extra business helped the Jekyll Island Authority put its business in the black this year for the first time in years. The authority reported a $1.6 million surplus in the 2015 fiscal year ending June 30. Last year the state park saw a net loss of $3.6 million.

Not everybody is seeing the benefits. Whittle’s Gift Shop, which has sold T-shirts and trinkets on Jekyll Island since 1964, opened its new location at Jekyll Island’s just-finished retail village in July. But owner Nana Ferguson said moving close to the island’s new convention hub hasn’t brought her a burst of new business.

“Moving in here, I didn’t expect that it would set the world on fire, but I didn’t expect it to be as slow as it has been,” Ferguson said. “I try to stay positive. I think it will pick up if they get more of our conventions back.”

Hooks said winning back larger conventions remains a high priority, as some meeting planners have said Jekyll Island still doesn’t have enough hotel rooms to accommodate their groups. The island has fewer than 1,100 hotel rooms, down from more than 1,500 before revitalization efforts began.

Park officials recently delayed finding a private partner to build a second hotel for the island’s convention hub it until 2016 after a request for proposals submitted in February yielded just one bidder.

“We bike on the island and we walk on the beach and you can see there’s a lot more people out here,” said David Egan, an island resident and co-founder of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island State Park, who suspects day-trippers account for much of the influx. “I just don’t know how that is rippling back to the hotels and the shops.”

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