by Tom Barton, Savannah Morning News
Some people are natural born optimists. They possess glowing dispositions that require onlookers to wear sunglasses. Then there’s John McCleskey. He’s the guy who hatched a crazy dream in the mid-1980s to turn Hutchinson Island from a vast urban wasteland into an asset that would put people to work, put money in their pockets and add to Savannah’s quality of life.
McCleskey, now 73, doesn’t just exude positive vibes. The guy could have taught positive thinking to John the Baptist, Norman Vincent Peale and Barney the Dinosaur. But what’s remarkable isn’t McCleskey’s ability to keep his chin up. Instead, it’s that he kept it up for almost 30 years in the case of Hutchinson — while getting the stuffing kicked out of him in the process. He survived the bankruptcy of an Australian company that almost sank the project. He endured a gauntlet of make-or-break political battles. He slogged through deluges that ruined half-finished buildings.
John McCleskey isn’t a high-profile name in this town, at least compared to others who do the moving and shaking. And there’s a reason: John McCleskey isn’t a high-profile guy. But McCleskey is someone who made a difference. To my way of thinking, he’s Mr. Hutchinson Island.
Hutchinson is still a work in progress. But if not for McCleskey, the island that sits across the Savannah River from the city’s bustling waterfront probably wouldn’t have an upscale hotel, the Westin, or the Savannah Harbour golf resort. Without the hotel, there would be no world-class convention center there either.
In fact, if the former Atlanta developer had never put down roots here a quarter century ago and fallen in love with Hutchinson — a cardinal sin in the land development game — the low-lying island would probably still look like it did in prior decades. An eyesore. Raw. Ignored. A good place to breed mosquitoes and hide dead bodies.
But this modern-day John the Baptizer camped by the riverside. He preached to the local masses about Hutchinson’s potential for tourism, residential and business growth. He converted many skeptics. He kept private investors — especially CSX Real Property — plugged in when the urge was to pull out. He kept the faith since 1985. He never wavered.
Last Wednesday, CSX and the Westin/Savannah Harbour resort celebrated the prophet of Hutchinson by hosting a dinner at the golf course clubhouse in his honor. It was a blast from the past. Several key players who had a hand in the island’s development were there: Billy Hair (former Chatham County Commission chairman), Floyd Adams Jr. (former Savannah mayor), Richard Knowlton (former CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority), Russ Abolt (county manager) and Brooks Stillwell and Drew Ernst (attorneys with the HunterMaclean law firm).
“What it comes down to is people,” McCleskey said. “You can have a great plan, but it’s the people who work on it who are the most important. They make it all possible.”
Clearly, Hutchinson still has a long way to go. But those who can remember the old Hutchinson, with its dusty kaolin operation and lack of redeeming values, should admit that the current version is better. At least there’s been progress. There’s still potential. And with McCleskey pumping up the optimism level, there has always been hope.
McCleskey told a story about an early meeting he had with HunterMaclean lawyers to discuss his vision to develop Hutchinson. Malcolm Maclean, the moral force and legal force behind the firm, strode into the room. “He said he wanted to see if I looked as crazy as I sounded,” McCleskey said.
But craziness often is in the eye of the beholder. Hutchinson Island may not yet be a sight to behold. But it’s much improved. Credit John McCleskey, the eternal optimist, for having the faith in this island — and for keeping it for so long.