State Rep. Jeff Jones, R-Brunswick, recently pulled his name from coal ash bills fearing his support would weaken their chance of passage. Jones fears his name may have cost McIntosh County a $400,000 allocation for a new visitors center.
Late in February, Jones joined nine other House members in urging Speaker David Ralston to resign after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Ralston, a lawyer, had used his legislative position to stall court actions in cases involving his clients.
Jones believed he had secured a $400,000 special allocation to help McIntosh County remodel a former restaurant into a visitor center in the southwest corner of Exit 49 off Interstate 95. Since he joined the resolution addressing Ralston’s court delays, he has heard no more about his request for the money.
“They’re the big loser in this thing,’’ Jones said of McIntosh County. “We were kind of on a roll and getting things done. I hate it.”
Jones had sent a letter to Rep. Terry England, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, formally requesting state funds to help locate a visitors center at Exit 49 on Interstate 95 at the former Magnolia Bluff outlet mall.
“Ecotourism is one of the fastest growing tourism industries in the county,’’ Jones said in his Feb. 12 letter to England. “With Sapelo Island and countless other acreage of beautiful coastal conservation land, McIntosh County stands primely positioned to capitalize in this area of economic development.”
Jones asked for $750,000 and believes there was $400,000 in the budget for the project. He acknowledged Monday night, he can’t say for certain whether the funding was approved before he signed onto the resolution Feb. 28 calling for Ralston to vacate his seat.
Had the sponsor of the resolution on Ralston waited until after Crossover Day, the McIntosh County funding measure would already have passed safely from the House to the Senate. Crossover Day is the point in the legislative session when bills and resolutions must be approved in one chamber to give the other time to act. The Georgia General Assembly has not yet hit that date.
Jones asserted the project would be an economic generator for McIntosh County.
“This is an opportunity that we do not want to let slip by, and with the help of the State of Georgia, the county stands ready to proceed,’’ he wrote.
The county has done more than stand ready. It is moving forward and, as early as next week, will close on the now vacant Wendy’s restaurant just inside the entrance to the outlet mall. The county has about $300,000 in SPLOST revenue and will spend most of it to buy the property that, a real estate sign says, includes a 3,500-square-foot building on 1.4 acres.
The McIntosh County Commission has declined to comment on losing the special allocation.
Once renovated, the former fast food restaurant would house the visitors center and offices for the Darien & McIntosh County Chamber of Commerce.
For about the past five years, the chamber has occupied an office and operated a visitors center at the outlet mall, but it’s one of only three entities remaining at what was once a busy retail center. The others are the Southern Pickers antique store and the YMCA.
Once complete, the new visitors center will give the chamber much needed visibility, said Mandy Harrison, director of the chamber.
Unlike the current chamber office, the former Wendy’s is just a couple of hundred feet from the highway where motorists come for gasoline and food, Harrison said
“There’s so much traffic at the fast food [businesses] there,’’ she said, “our visitation would probably triple at least.”
The former dining area would allow for a larger visitor center with more displays, Harrison said.
For now, the tables and chairs are still inside the former Wendy’s while the lawn has dandelions and fire ants and all the signs are gone.
It still gets diners, albeit when tour buses stop in the parking lot and riders walk next door to Burger King. That alone would provide a lot more exposure to what the county and city have to offer, Harrison said.
As for any possible misconduct on Ralston’s part, a local lawyer said the speaker was singled out for a practice routinely used by most — if not all — lawyer/legislators. It is common, he said, for lawyers to use their legislative work as a reason for continuances in court proceedings.