Halls of Fame seen as drain on state finances

AJC Exclusive: Taxpayers still on hook for $2 million in loans on closed Golf Hall of Fame

AUGUSTA — In the midst of a budget crisis, state government will spend almost $500,000 this year to continue paying off a monument to golf that was never built.

Now two Georgia senators want the state to give the 17-acre Golf Hall of Fame property to the city of Augusta for $1, even though state taxpayers will be paying that $500,000 in debt service until April 2015.

Other lawmakers denounce the idea and say it’s frustrating that the state has to continue paying off bonds on the vacant, weedy land at a time when they are furloughing teachers and cutting public health programs.

The 14-year saga of the hall of fame that never got built offers a cautionary tale about the long-term consequences of spending decisions lawmakers make. And it is an example of what some say they can no longer afford to do: fund non-essential programs, entities and attractions that are a drain on state finances.

“We’re not going to build any more amusement parks, we’re not getting into any museum business right now,” said House Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin (R-Evans), who in the past has been a supporter of the Golf Hall.

“We’re going to focus on core missions. You will not see us bring up another Hall of Fame under my watch that is government supported because it’s not fair to the taxpayers.”

No tourism magnets

Halls of fame were the rage in the late 1980s and 1990s, when state tax collections were growing every year and locals saw the attractions as tourist magnets.

The state funded Georgia halls of fame for music and sports in Macon, and Golf Hall of Fame in Augusta. Other, smaller facilities got money as well.

Altogether, the state spent more than $60 million over the course of 15 years on halls of fames and similar facilities.

The Golf Hall of Fame was promoted by Augusta’s powerful legislators as a way to capitalize on the world-famous Masters golf tournament.

For decades when Democrats were in charge, Augusta’s legislative delegation was among the strongest in the state. During the 1990s, city lawmakers served in top leadership positions. Two master deal makers from that era, Sen. Charles Walker (D-Augusta) and Rep. Robin Williams (R-Augusta), are currently serving time in federal prison.

With the backing of then-Gov. Zell Miller and the General Assembly, the state borrowed $6 million in 20-year bonds for the hall along the Savannah River in 1996.

But the $6 million didn’t go as far as Augusta officials had hoped it would. It bought the land downtown along the city’s riverwalk and helped build a botanical gardens complete with a fairway, lake, sand bunker and waterfall. Statues of famous golfers were sprinkled among the grounds. But there wasn’t enough money for a hall.

For about a decade, the state also chipped in $58,000 to $85,000 for operating expenses, which officials said barely paid the water bill for the botanical gardens.

A state audit in 2007 criticized how that money was spent, citing meals, bottles of wine and, in one case, a $60 massage for a hall employee. At the time, the audit placed the value of the land at $5.26 million.

Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoed the annual funding for the facility, and it closed in 2007.

Less than three years later, the site is locked behind brick walls and chain-link fences. The statues are gone, and parts of the property are overgrown with weeds.

“It’s an eyesore,” said state Sen. Hardie Davis, (D-Augusta), a sponsor of the bill that would essentially give the property to Augusta. “It’s also a beautiful piece of property, and we’re hoping something can be done with it.”

Some Augusta leaders, including Mayor Deke Copenhaver, are hoping the hall property can be re-developed as an entertainment center, complete with a baseball park for the city’s minor-league team. Copenhaver and the team’s co-owner, baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., have talked with Perdue about the plans.

Davis said he filed his bill to “get the conversation started” about what to do with the property. He said not everyone is behind the downtown baseball stadium proposal. “You’ve got to have all the key stakeholders at the table,” he said. “We’ve got to do something, and that’s what I’m committed to.”

Bert Brantley, the governor’s spokesman, said it would be illegal for the state to sell the Golf Hall of Fame property for $1. That would be a gift, which is unconstitutional. What price the state can get for the property, especially in this down economy, is unclear. The longer the site sits unsold and unused, the longer taxpayers will keep paying for it. State taxpayers are still on the hook for $2.85 million in debt service.

“It’s a complicated issue in that it’s state ownership of a pretty attractive piece of land in the middle of a city that tried to make a go of it and it didn’t work out,” Brantley said. “Everybody is committed to getting that property to its highest and best use, and it’s not there right now.”

Continue funding Halls?

While the state cut off the annual Golf Hall of Fame funding almost three years ago, it has continued to provide operating money to subsidize the Music and Sports Halls of Fame in Macon.

Both halls have long had trouble attracting tourists, and there have been calls from some quarters to shut them down. Perdue is from nearby Houston County, and the area’s legislative delegation remains strong enough to maintain state support for the halls, although not at the level of the past. The governor’s proposed budget calls for the two halls to receive a combined $1 million next year, down from $1.6 million when he took office in 2003.

Fund-raising efforts and spending cuts have helped save the facilities. But state auditors have raised doubts that the halls will ever be self-sustaining. So local lawmakers are pushing legislation to raise Macon and Bibb County’s hotel-motel tax to help fund the facilities.

Harbin, the appropriations chairman, isn’t convinced the state will continue funding the Macon halls much longer.

“The money to provide services is scarce and for us to provide services we need, some things that aren’t pulling their weight may have to go,” he said.

Despite the financial problems with other halls of fame, Perdue is proposing the state borrow $10 million over the next 20 years to help build a facility for the College Football Hall of Fame, now located in South Bend, Ind., in Atlanta.

Supporters point to key differences between that proposed hall and those in Macon and Augusta.

Most of the $90 million it would take to build the football facility would be raised from private sources. So the state’s portion would be comparatively small.

The facility also is likely to be located in an area of downtown Atlanta around Centennial Olympic Park that attracts many visitors. That generally isn’t the case with the Augusta and Macon locations.

Finally, Brantley said the College Football Hall of Fame doesn’t expect the state to chip in money every year to help run the facility. That’s important at a time when lawmakers are looking for ways to cut all the spending they can to erase a projected $1 billion shortfall in next year’s state budget.

“I think there is a new reality that is setting in,” Brantley said. “You’re not going to be able to rely on yearly state funding.”

Even so, Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an Atlanta think tank, said it’s hard to justify the state spending tax money on halls of fame.

“If you ask anybody to prioritize the core functions of government, I don’t think hall of fames would make anybody’s top 10,” he said. “Many would argue, as we would, that it’s very questionable whether the state should be involved in this.”