The Sea Island Company is a family-owned hospitality and real estate corporation that was founded in 1926.
Its major operations are the management of the Cloister resort on Sea Island, which it owns, and the development and sale of real estate on Sea Island and St. Simons Island. Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, the company is the largest private employer in Glynn County, with more than 1,700 employees as of 2004.
The company was established by the Ohio automobile and aviation pioneer Howard Coffin as Sea Island Investments, Inc. In 1926 he began buying tracts of land on St. Simons, followed shortly thereafter by the purchase of neighboring Long Island, which he soon renamed Sea Island. Having acquired Sapelo Island in 1912 as a coastal retreat, Coffin recognized the potential for development of Georgia’s coastal islands as a tourist destination. He hired Walter Travis, the first overseas winner of the British Amateur Championship, to design a golf course on St. Simons at the former Retreat Plantation, site of a nineteenth-century cotton plantation. English course architects Colt and Alison later reworked it and added a nine-hole seaside course. Coffin envisioned a beach resort and cottage colony on Sea Island and to that end commissioned the noted Palm Beach, Florida, architect Addison Mizner to design a hotel in the Spanish style. At Mizner’s suggestion, Coffin named it the Cloister.
To make the islands more accessible to tourists, Coffin financed repairs to the causeway between the mainland and St. Simons, built twenty-two miles of roads, which he later turned over to the county, and started a public bus line between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, by way of Brunswick. He also brought modern services to the islands, including the first electric power plant, a water system, and telephone exchange.
In 1928 Coffin turned over management of the Sea Island Company to his young cousin Alfred W. Jones, thus beginning a tradition of family management. Jones successfully steered the company through the Great Depression and assumed leadership upon Coffin’s death in 1937. Alfred W. Jones Jr. succeeded his father as president of the company in 1966. Since 1997 Alfred “Bill” Jones III has been chairman and chief executive officer. The company was named National Family Business of the Year in 1995.
Today the amenities of the Cloister include 269 guest rooms, a beach club, spa, shooting school, tennis center, fishing dock, and marina on Sea Island. The resort’s 54-hole Sea Island Golf Club with the Lodge and Golf Learning Center are located on neighboring St. Simons Island, along with a yacht club and stables.
Other company activities include the Lodge at Cabin Bluff, a 50,000-acre hunting preserve in Camden County, and the Shops at Sea Island shopping enclave on St. Simons. Through Sea Island Properties, the company sells real estate on Sea Island and St. Simons Island. During the past thirty years the company has developed several residential areas on St. Simons, in addition to the cottage colony on Sea Island. The company owns approximately three-quarters of the undeveloped land on St. Simons Island, which it plans to develop according to a long-range master plan.
The Sea Island Company has a long-standing tradition of providing land for such public uses as roads, parks, schools, churches, and health facilities. A commitment to the preservation of historic sites has been demonstrated throughout the company’s existence. In 1936 Howard Coffin and Alfred Jones Sr. spearheaded the effort to have Fort Frederica declared a national monument. The company, in association with the National Science Foundation, funded archaeological studies of Cannon’s Point Plantation on St. Simons Island in the 1970s. A number of tabby ruins from the plantation era on St. Simons have been preserved and restored, including the hospital for enslaved laborers at Retreat Plantation. In 1995 the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation presented the company with its award for Outstanding Achievement in Historic Preservation. The company also has demonstrated a commitment to the preservation of Georgia’s natural resources. In 1996 the Jones family donated 367-acre Carr’s Island in the Altamaha River delta to the Nature Conservancy of Georgia.
In June 2004 Sea Island was the site of the G8 summit of world leaders.