Go Fish swims against the (revenue) stream

PERRY — The Go Fish Education Center rises just off the largely vacant, four-lane Perry Parkway, a monument to fish and fishermen — and a politician’s willingness to bet millions of taxpayer dollars on a dream.

That dream — to promote Georgia as an angler’s pardise — belonged to Gov. Sonny Perdue, who pledged the state to borrow $14 million needed to float his Go Fish Georgia initiative. When he announced around Christmas 2007 that the center would be built down the road from his home, officials predicted annual attendance of 200,000.

Paid attendance, while slowly growing, is barely a tenth of that, with ticket sales of less than $70,000 this fiscal year, through the end of May. The debt, $20 million with interest, won’t be paid off until Dec. 1, 2027. Including bond payments, salaries and overhead, the state is paying out more than $1.5 million a year to keep the center going. It is open to the public three days a week, but school groups reserve it for field trips other days.

» PHOTOS: Tour the Go Fish Education Center

The fact that the center’s not a raging river of revenue is no surprise to many legislators.

“Who is going to Perry, Ga., to look at a fishing center?” asked Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, who was House Appropriations chairman when lawmakers signed off on the program. “You are playing with taxpayer money and committing it year after year. No business in its right mind would keep that facility open.”

Perdue, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

Jeremy Wixson, program manager for the Go Fish Center, said the center is taking in closer to $100,000 a year, once you include gift shop and other sales. Momentum is growing, he said, and on some nonpublic days the place is booked solid with school groups.

“We want to be able to generate enough that we cover most of our expenses,” Wixson said. “We are charging for folks to come into this facility so we can maximize the dollars that are available to spend in the field on managing and educating the public about the fish populations around the state.”

But the fact that the focal point of Go Fish is Perry continues to spawn skepticism.

Joe McCutchen, an Ellijay retiree who criticized Go Fish from the start, said it “makes me sick to my stomach to think about the waste of taxpayer money. It’s turned out to be a real boondoggle.”

That’s not the way locals who use the facility see it.

“It is a pretty neat place,” said Bob Melnick of Warner Robins, who visited the center one recent Friday with his grandson. “For an area outside of the Atlanta market, it’s not bad. It gives kids around here something to do.”

Perdue proposed the $30 million Go Fish program in January 2007 as a way to promote fishing tourism and attract major bass tournaments. The governor had just been re-elected to a second term and state coffers were flush before the onset of the Great Recession. Some lawmakers ridiculed the idea, but they still approved the governor’s initiative. Just after Christmas that year, Perdue announced the Go Fish Education Center would be built in his home county, Houston, next to the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter on land the state owned.

Go Fish also included large-scale boat ramps with extra parking and piers. So far, 14 ramps have been completed across the state with the last two in development, Department of Natural Resources officials said. The sites have been used by local anglers but also hosted major fishing events. DNR officials estimate that fishing generates $1.3 billion in annual retail sales and that a major bass tournament can have a $4 million to $5 million economic impact on a community.

The education center opened in October 2010 just off a quiet Interstate 75 exit within sight of the fairgrounds.

Some days there is relatively little action at the center, other days it is packed with schoolchildren. Adults visit, but the center is made to engage and educate children.

A tour takes them through an outdoor aquarium-like setting containing fish from various regions of the state, including some they aren’t used to seeing: including lake sturgeon, robust redhorse, gar and albino channel catfish. Wixson said the fish displays are arranged to match third-grade curriculum, when students learn about the various regions of the state. More than 3,100 students in school groups have been through the center this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Tuesday through Thursdays are for such tours.

The center has a few alligators, a hunting gallery, fishing and boating simulators and an active fish hatchery that focuses on large-mouth bass production, although other fish are bred produced as well.

Out back is a casting pond where, Wixson said, many visitors catch their first fish. First-timers get a “Go Fish” certificate with their name and the type of fish they caught.

In early June the casting pond was stocked with striped bass, catfish and bluegill, but in December, it has trout. “It’s kind of a novelty to catch them in Perry,” he said.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Wixson added. “It’s about getting people out fishing and away from TVs and some of that indoor stuff and getting them outside and making memories with their families and into a sport that’s fun,” he said.

Ben Williams of Hawkinsville, who was at the pond recently with his wife and two children and four other relatives, said the kids came to the center on a school trip and loved it. The family has been back twice since then to fish.

His wife, Hannah, said, “Our kids would spend all day here if they could.”

Sam Metcalf of Perry, who has taken his granddaughters to the center several times, said, “It could be a popular place if people found out about it.”

Wixson isn’t sure where the original annual attendance estimates — 200,000 when it was proposed, scaled back to 100,000 when it opened three years later — came from. A DNR fisheries biologist in South Georgia, he wasn’t involved with the center at the time. But he said Go Fish has a marketing campaign, including interstate billboards and efforts to attract groups in town for other events.

The project manager said he’s heard reporters imply that the center is “a private playground for Gov. Perdue.”

“I have never met Governor Perdue,” he said.

The center’s location, selected after a study of possible sites, makes some sense, Wixson said.

“The whole idea was to get anglers to stop in Georgia … guys that were driving from Tennessee to Florida to go fishing in Florida. It made sense if people are driving from Tennessee to Florida because we’re approximately half way between.”

While Atlanta may have the population, a Go Fish Center could get lost among the many attractions the metro area has to offer.

“You’ve got a lot of other things people could do,” he said. “Right here, there’s not a lot of other things that would take people away from this.”

While the General Assembly approved funding for the project, the decision on where to locate the center was made after lawmakers left town, and it still irks some that it wound up in Perdue’s home county.

Harbin, who voted for the budget that included Go Fish funding, said it happened around the time that Perdue and lawmakers were cutting funding for state museums and halls of fame because of poor attendance. While lawmakers have lauded the boat ramps built across the state, they still question the need for the education center.

“What’s playing out now is what we questioned back then,” Harbin said. “I hope we will start looking at this, study it and decide whether we need to maybe close it down or privatize it. We keep talking about running government like a business. If taxpayers aren’t using it, why keep it open?”

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