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Darrell Huckaby - Jekyll Island: home of the millionaires

I married into camping at Jekyll Island every spring. We took one year off for my lovely wife, Lisa, to have a baby. That would have been Jenna, our third child. The free spirit of the bunch. The one who turned 16 this week. The one who put all this gray in my beard.

We paid her back for being born during spring break, though. She's celebrated virtually every birthday of her life sitting around a campfire singing "Kum Bah Yah."

For those of you have been reading me for a while, it's time for our annual history lesson. Keep reading, Please. It won't hurt a bit. I promise. And I know you've heard it all before, but I have been a classroom teacher for 34 years and I know that a little review can go a long way, so hang with me.

Jekyll Island used to be a vacation home for millionaires. And we're talking back when a million was a million, too. Think rich. Think very, very rich. Think Rockefeller, Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan. That kind of rich.

Those old boys and a few others distrusted one another so much that they couldn't stand to let one get too far away from the other, so they formed a club and bought themselves an island so they could vacation together. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. That kind of thing.

They built an elaborate clubhouse and magnificent "cottages," if you can imagine a "cottage" with thirty rooms, and a wharf for their yachts and to the Georgia coast they came. A majority of all the wealth in the world on our own little pristine island.

They played tennis and swam and strolled beneath the ancient Live Oaks - and did whatever else the richest families in the world do when they are supposed to be on vacation.

German submarines off the coast of Georgia scared the rich folks away during World War II. It wouldn't do for a Vanderbilt to be kidnapped or murdered by the Nazis, understand - and they found other places to vacation. Places, one would assume, without the heat or humidity or quite so many gnats.

They left behind their clubhouse and their cottages and their aging indoor pool and their tennis courts and their wharf - and a mostly pristine island - which the state of Georgia bought.

The Legislature approved the purchase of the island and ordained that a large percentage of it would always remain undeveloped. They also ordained that the island would always remain an affordable haven for Georgians of average means. Always is apparently a pretty obscure term as far as politicians are concerned.

The state leased building lots and folks built nice but modest ranch houses - modest by today's standards, at least. They built a convention center and a couple of golf courses and over the years motels were built and the Millionaire's Village was restored. A 4-H center was added and bike trails and a miniature golf course and even a water park. Jekyll became exactly, I believe, what the folks who had the foresight to create the Jekyll Island Authority intended. A nice vacation destination where Georgians of average means could get away from the stress of day-to-day life and enjoy themselves for a few days.

But time doesn't stand still - even on idyllic little islands.

The old motels got a little bit shabby. The convention center became run down. A lot of groups who once held annual meetings on Jekyll began to opt for more elegant destinations with more elaborate facilities. The state began to lose money on their Jekyll investment; or either the state wasn't making as much as it once did. That depends on whose accounting sheet you believe to be accurate.

At any rate, everyone who knew anything about the situation here at my spring break home could see that she needed a face lift. So the powers that be decided to accept bids on plans to make improvements on the island.

Now here's the rub. There were lots of opinions on what type of new face the old gal should have. I mean, Phyllis Diller has come under the plastic surgeon's knife dozens of times, but she always looked like an improved Phyllis Diller after surgery. She never once had the bandages removed and looked like Marilyn Monroe.

The development company that got the bid to redo Jekyll wants to make her look like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Tyra Banks rolled into one.

The plan the state selected calls for high-rise condominiums and upscale restaurants and shopping centers and - well, think Hilton Head south and you'll get the picture. Many fear the new development will be more than the island's fragile ecosystem can maintain.

But it will bring dollars. Lots and lots of dollars. Not just enough money to maintain the island, but windfall revenue for the state's coffers. Sure the island's amenities will be priced out of reach of the average Georgian, but that was just a idealistic pipe dream to begin with. Wasn't it?

I mean, really. Is the word of the state of Georgia really relevant when huge numbers of dollars are at stake?

Apparently not.

Jekyll Island used to be a vacation home for millionaires. Soon it may be again. Tune in this time next year and I'll let you know how things are going down on the coast.

Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.