One morning in 2001, my father, Charles Gowen, 97, exclaimed, “Poor St. Simons,” as we were passing Demere Village in a very minor traffic jam and beginning a drive back to his retirement home near Atlanta. His memories went back to the early 1900s when the island was a spacious, wild and wonderful place for a boy to visit by boat from Brunswick to spend summers with his grandparents at The Mills and at their beach homes near The Lighthouse.
The Demere Village area we were passing wasn’t far from Sam Levinson’s former general store in the Jewtown community that he remembered from his childhood. Another of his earliest memories was participating in an exciting north end Hampton River fishing trip with an elderly friend, The Rev. Edmund Matthews, former rector of Christ Church, Frederica, who must have been in his late 80s or mid 90s at the time.
During his years in Brunswick and on St. Simons Island, my father had a great appreciation for Glynn County. As an attorney dedicated to local progress and a legislator for many years, his major interests were education, the state prison system, and initiating and supporting legislation to protect the coastal environment.
He moved to Atlanta in 1964 to join a law firm there, and always enjoyed visits back to the coast. But that day in 2001, he was certainly correct in realizing that changes to “Poor St. Simons” had become irreversible.
My memories are from the 40s and 50s when the island was still basically an undisturbed place. During the war years, everyone knew the make and model of every car on the island, and if it was a full car, we knew the family in the car was entertaining company. It was a comfortable, interesting place to grow up where people knew each other. But we were “found out” in the 60s. Things have never been the same, and we can’t go back. But rightfully so.
After all, the beaches belong to the people of Georgia, and people are coming now in droves. I have sympathy for those who want to come to our beach community. Ways must be found to secure infrastructure for the future growth and development that is going to happen, even if development can somehow be managed so that older, established neighborhoods can be protected to ensure that the island remains the charming place it still is. If it loses its charm, we have turned it over to people who have no appreciation for its uniqueness.
My husband and I have recently moved to the north end of the island from many years in an East Beach home where our guest house was a vacation rental for about seven years. We paid our county and state rental taxes regularly, but at the same time we knew many others didn’t. Mr. Butler’s belief, stated in his Feb. 8 letter, that insuring rental taxes are collected will certainly help, and it should be done.
But we need much more financial support to do what is needed now and will be required on St. Simons Island in years ahead. We are a major tourist destination, and the island’s success is our community’s success.
For years, we gave up six or seven parking spaces in front of our home on East Beach to the public coming to the Gould’s Inlet beach access, requiring us to park our own cars in our back yard and seek parking for our family and friends elsewhere. We did this because we wanted people to be able to enjoy the beach as we have done. Those six or seven parking spaces on East Beach will probably disappear in coming years as homes are built and sold. More parking areas are very necessary so that people can have access to the beach. This will take planning, funds and maintenance for years.
A toll on the causeway can help with creating parking places and maintaining them. It can ensure that infrastructure will be maintained so that this place people love to visit is safe, cared for, and remains special. The amount of money collected by the former causeway toll was substantial over the years, and we need substantial funds now and into the future to maintain our island. Looming ahead is that north end causeway for which climate change is proving we need to begin planning to construct.
Most of us wish things could have stayed the way they were when we first encountered the island. That will never be, but we can begin now to take responsibility for this beautiful place that will remain a haven for residents and visitors for the next 100 years and beyond. It’s going to take careful planning and substantial toll money from those who come to see, appreciate and enjoy the island. People who live on and work on St. Simons, and those who live in Glynn County should pay a lesser toll fee, but let’s take in from visitors at least half as much as Jekyll Island does. Even “Poor St. Simons” is worth the toll and the effort. Good luck, Dr. Murphy.