“Jekyll is not just a special place, it’s a holy place,” said Kelli Wadsten.
She and husband Gary Wadsten, an executive committee member for Jekyll Island Foundation’s Board of Directors, have been energized by – and fueling – this feeling for nearly a decade via Carolina Holdings Group (CHG), which has helped revitalize certain areas of the Island through residential real estate projects.
“It’s one of the most meaningful places we’ve ever been not just because of our business ventures but because of the people we’ve met and that special feeling you get when you drive onto the causeway,” she said.
For Gary, meeting people on Jekyll started as a youth, which may also have been when the seed was planted for him to eventually become a valued partner in the island’s revitalization. “My great aunt and uncle, Ruth and Lamar Hilton, were among the original [residential] housebuilders. I visited them a few times as a kid,” he said. “Coincidentally, my mom, Joan VanCampen, was part of this great group of friends who…for 20 years…spent January through March on Jekyll, always staying in the same group of rooms at the Quality Inn (now Seafarer Inn & Suites). And another relative—my uncle Rudy Kazenberger, who was part of that ‘snowbird’ group with my mom—was a longtime restoration volunteer for Hollybourne Cottage.”
In 2014, a former colleague called Gary about a potential opportunity on Jekyll. “I hadn’t been there in a very long time,” he said. CHG worked with a Florida bank that had taken possession of the old Clarion Oceanfront Resort, a property that was in terrible shape and needed to be demolished. Today it is known as The Cottages at Jekyll Island, an oceanfront residential community.
“Because of that project, I met a great friend who is also now a business partner,” said Gary. “And for a long time, Kelli and I owned one of the homes in The Cottages, where we really enjoyed sharing our love of the island with family and friends.”
The success of The Cottages led to being trusted with a second project, Ocean Oaks at Jekyll Island, a joint venture with Delaware-based Leon Weiner & Associates, and now a third: The Moorings at Jekyll Harbor.
“Gary doesn’t shy away from projects that others might think are too challenging,” said Kelli, referring to the state legislation in place that govern how much as well as how development occurs on the island, which is a state park.
“The [Jekyll Island] Authority has done a great job of championing—and inviting others to share in the vision of—conservation,” said Gary. “I have tremendous respect for the delicate balance of the situation and want to do what’s right for Jekyll.”
This perspective is what also led them to give back and get more involved. “We didn’t know when we did The Cottages that there would be other opportunities,” said Kelli, “but we felt it was important to be part of Jekyll in every way we could.” They started by being one of the sponsors for the island’s annual Shrimp & Grits Festival, which is where they had their first significant encounter with the Foundation.
“[Foundation Executive Director] Dion walked right up and started talking to me,” said Gary. “Her energy and enthusiasm for all things Jekyll was just so compelling.”
That enthusiasm, coupled with the vision and commitment of the Foundation Board, influenced CHG to provide a corporate investment in Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museum. Later, it also prompted a resounding ‘yes’ from Gary when he was asked to serve on the Board. “As a non-native Georgian, I was blown away by the invitation,” he said. “I love that I have another platform from which I can shout loud and proud about my love for Jekyll.”
Now five years into his Board service, Gary is looking forward to using that platform to raise awareness and support for the Foundation’s next big project: a capital campaign to raise funding for renovations and expansion of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. “It’s going to be one of the biggest undertakings in the organization’s history and it’s going to be one of the Island’s biggest opportunities for outreach,” he said.
And while Gary and Kelli have been an integral part of the Island’s revitalization over the past decade, they also respect there’s a limit. “We think it would be wonderful for Jekyll to continue to grow in popularity as long as that’s not at the expense of its integrity,” she said. “It’s hard to find a place where you can drown out the noise, but when we walk or run or bike those trails, it feels like no other place in the world. It feels like heaven.”