Five years in, Perdue's "Go Fish Center" costing millions, attracting few visitors

Five years after then-Gov. Sonny Perdue's Go Fish Education Center opened down the road from his home off a quiet highway in Houston County, the facility is still having a hard time attracting one-tenth of the visitors officials originally expected.

Credit: James Salzer

Credit: James Salzer

Department of Natural Resources figures show 21,101 people visited the Perry facility in fiscal 2015, which ended June 30. It generated $102,077 in revenue, or about 11 cents for every dollar it cost to run the center in years past.

That doesn't include the millions borrowed to build the facility, which Georgia taxpayers will be paying off until December 2027.

Attendance was down from the two previous years, but up slightly from fiscal 2012, the first full year the facility was in operation.

Michael Fulghum, interim program manager at the Go Fish Center, said staffers are hoping increased marketing efforts will pay off. He said the center is seeing an uptick in attendance, with especially robust school and child education programs.

But attendance is nowhere near what Perdue and backers envisioned it would be in 2007, when the governor announced the center would be built in his home county and officials projected that 200,000 a year would visit. They had scaled back the estimate to 100,000 by the time it opened in October of 2010.

Some lawmakers ridiculed the idea of building the facility at all, let alone in a small town along a relatively rural stretch of I-75. Others called it political pork.

"To me it was a boondoggle because of the amount of money they were spending and the location," said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "You have got to have stuff where there is a lot of traffic. It's a little off the beaten path."

Still, the Go Fish facility was the centerpiece of Perdue's vision of turning Georgia into a bass-fishing mecca.

Coming off the political high of easily winning re-election and fairly flush with revenue after some recession-starved years, Perdue proposed the $30 million Go Fish program in January 2007 as a way to promote fishing tourism and attract major bass tournaments. Lawmakers - some of whom would benefit by seeing new large-scale boat ramps with extra parking and piers in their districts - readily approved Perdue's plan.

Credit: James Salzer

Credit: James Salzer

Just after Christmas that year, before the General Assembly came back into town for the 2008 session, Perdue announced that the center would be built in his home county, Houston, next to the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter on land the state owned.

While the boat ramps have hosted major fishing events, the center has long been a source of irritation for some lawmakers.

It is open to the public Friday, Saturday and for four hours on Sunday, with extended  days and hours during the summer. Other days of the week it is used for education programs.

Some days there is relatively little action at the center; other days it is packed with schoolchildren.

Go Fish used interstate billboards and other marketing tools to boost attendance. Officials were hoping to get anglers driving through the state to go fishing in Florida to stop. They argued it was in a good spot, about half-way between Tennessee and Florida. The feeling was that while metro Atlanta has the population, a Go Fish Center could get lost among the many local attractions.

But like some of the state Halls of Fames designed for tourists in Macon and Augusta that eventually lost state funding, Go Fish has struggled to attract the crowds local boosters envisioned.

"The past five years we have had some growing pains, like every business has growing pains, but we're learning," Fulghum said.

He said the center recently hired a new educator and that about 20 percent of visitors are school children, who can learn about fish from the aquarium and hatchery and get a chance to fish in the pond in back of the facility. Fulghum said the center has added education programs, including ones for home-school children, and staffers have gone out into local communities to sell the center. Officials also held a legislative appreciate night where they hosted lawmakers and told the center's story.

"We are more than just an aquarium," he said. "We need to market now. There are people who live in Perry that don't know about it."

Fulghum acknowledged that there has been a lot of negative publicity about the center. "If you have any doubts about the facility, you need to see it," he tells critics.

Powell, however, said from a business perspective, it may not make sense to keep the facility open. Lawmakers are sensitive to such facilities because there is a history of the state borrowing millions for museums and halls and centers that fail to live up to their expectations. The state just finished paying off the 20-year bonds on a golf Hall of Fame in Augusta that was never completed.

"It seems like the proper thing to do would be to quit funding it," Powell said of the Go Fish Center. "We have closed state parks, and we have privatized golf courses. If it is losing major money, close it. If it's not even near breaking even, you cut your losses."

But Fulghum noted that the center is not a for-profit business.

"It's more than that we built an aquarium in Perry, we built something more in Perry," he said. "You have to take a step back. We're providing a service. We want to introduce people to fishing."