Gov. Nathan Deal stood before a crowd of dozens of Gainesville’s elite on a chilly fall afternoon and told the crowd he hadn’t expected to see them again so soon.
“I keep thinking it’s my last address here as governor,” he told the audience at an event announcing another multimillion-dollar investment in his hometown, “and I keep coming back with more good news.”
That’s not by accident. The governor has lavished attention on home folk over eight years. Not every idea has come to fruition, but there is no doubt that Deal has transformed the area that launched his political career nearly four decades ago.
The building initiatives in Hall County include one of the most expensive projects in Georgia history — a brand-new technical college campus — and sparked criticism about favoritism and needless spending.
Deal characterizes the more than $220 million worth of taxpayer-funded initiatives in Gainesville as projects that will pay broader economic dividends and help train a growing workforce in a state that has seen hundreds of thousands of new jobs created since he took over.
“And those demands will have to be met by our educational system, and that’s why we’ve cranked up so many efforts. It’s working,” Deal said.
Ben Harbin, who once was chairman of the state House’s budget-writing committee, said Deal has followed in the footsteps of his predecessors in steering state money to his hometown. But not with “pork projects” or speculative investments such as tourist attractions that will cost the state well into the future.
“The difference is what he is doing will not only benefit Gainesville, it will benefit the state,” Harbin said. “He is not just building something because he is governor.”
‘A big deal’
Deal, who was first elected to represent Gainesville in the state Senate in 1980, made the most ambitious of his hometown projects the relocation of Lanier Technical College from one end of Hall County to a glittering new campus about 10 miles to the north.
All told, the state borrowed more than $130 million to build the new facilities — making it the first from-scratch, newly constructed tech college in Georgia history and one of the costliest state projects ever.
Even some Gainesville leaders said they were surprised when Deal first broached the idea of the move in late 2015, and one former legislator complained about a lack of public input.
“There is no doubt the buildings (at Lanier Tech) need renovating, updating and possibly some additions,” ex-state Rep. Jerry Jackson wrote in a letter to the local newspaper. “But a study needs to be done and a lot of public input heard before this school is moved.”
Deal wasn’t waiting. The governor cast it as a way to prepare Georgians to work at new plants that have located in northeast Georgia. At an October ceremony, he hailed it as “the model, in my opinion, for other technical institutions.”
Just down the road at the Gateway Industrial Centre, Deal’s administration committed millions of dollars in state tax money as well. His moves there stoked controversy because one of the leading partners in the project is the governor’s longtime ally Philip Wilheit, who was chairman of his gubernatorial campaign.
What was a little-noticed plot of land along Ga. 365 was transformed after Deal took office in 2011. Local taxpayers fronted $10 million to build roads and put in sewer and other infrastructure on the land. A state panel that’s headed by Deal agreed in 2012 to build a $13 million state poultry laboratory on the campus.
One local activist described it as an example of “good ol’ boys helping good ol’ boys at taxpayer expense,” but shortly before Deal’s re-election in 2014, Kubota Manufacturing also announced a $100 million expansion at the industrial park.
Earlier this month, Deal stood in a drafty nearby airport hangar to announce the state would locate a $90 million inland port at the Gateway development. By 2021, it’s expected to handle 150,000 containers a year by rail on their way to or from Savannah’s bustling port, saving truck drivers a six-hour round trip to the coast.
“Let me assure you that what we’re doing today is a big deal for Gainesville, Hall County, for the entire region that we serve here,” said Wilheit, a Gainesville power broker who was one of the top financial supporters of Deal’s campaigns.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of finance records showed Wilheit, his family, companies, business partners and employees contributed at least $128,000 to Deal’s two campaigns for governor.
Wilheit was appointed to the University System of Georgia Board of Regents shortly after the governor took office, and his son Philip Wilheit Jr. was recently named to the Georgia Ports Authority board. Those are two of the most sought-after board appointments in state government.
Pull the plug
Perhaps the most contentious of Deal’s proposed Gainesville-area projects was the construction of a reservoir in Hall County as part of a string of drinking-water projects that his administration saw as one solution to Georgia’s long-running legal battle with neighboring states over water rights.
Glades Reservoir was a cornerstone of Deal’s plan to boost Georgia’s water reserves. But it was criticized by both conservationists and fiscal conservatives who said the estimated price tag of $130 million was too steep and that it could damage the environment.
Still, Deal’s administration initially pledged $45 million in state money in 2013 for Glades and several other reservoirs. Two years later, local officials who had already pumped $16 million in county money into the reservoir put it on hold, citing new population projections that suggested it wasn’t needed.
Around that time, Deal’s administration cited those same estimates in pulling the plug. In a January 2016 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state’s top environmental official withdrew a request for federal regulators to approve the reservoir and instead said that Lake Lanier supplied enough drinking water to cover the area’s growth.
The Georgia Environmental Finance Authority said last week that the state hasn’t devoted any funding toward the project.
‘A symbol of waste’
Deal is hardly the only governor to use taxpayer money to boost his backyard.
Zell Miller championed a taxpayer-financed mountain retreat in his beloved hometown of Young Harris. Roy Barnes backed a state-funded amphitheater in his hometown of Mableton. George Busbee paved the way for a freeway to Albany, where he lived, and Marvin Griffin was instrumental in building an inland port in his native Bainbridge.
Then there was Sonny Perdue, who retired from office with a last-minute surprise purchase of woods adjacent to his Houston County property and construction of the Go Fish Center down the road from his home.
The latter, designed to be a tourist attraction for Middle Georgia, opened in 2010 at a time when the state was making deep cuts in school funding and furloughing and laying off teachers and workers. It became a national example of questionable spending at a time of austerity: The New York Times described it as “a symbol of waste.”
The state still owes $9 million on the Go Fish Education Center and will be paying off the money it borrowed to finance the project until December 2027. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional state funds are spent each year maintaining the center, which has long struggled with attendance.
Veteran state Rep. Alan Powell, one of the Legislature’s most outspoken fiscal conservatives, remains frustrated by projects such as Go Fish. But he’s not surprised by governors wanting to help their hometowns.
“Wherever you live, you have an interest that those people enjoy the same benefits as the rest of the state. You take care of your own backyard. That’s part of politics.” said Powell, a Hartwell Republican. “Some of these pet projects could be considered a boondoggle, and some of them can be considered economic development.”
Case in point, he said, was Deal’s latest hometown venture. Powell described the inland port as an economic development engine that will benefit the state and Gainesville’s economy.
Deal has been spared from harsher criticism partly because he started his tenure as the Great Recession’s effect on the state ebbed, and the economy has done nothing but expand for eight years. Perdue, by contrast, guided the state through two fiscal recessions in his two terms.
That meant Perdue was trying to launch projects at a time when the state was tightening its belt. With revenue ever growing, Deal has had very few opponents to his budget proposals and worked closely with leaders of the General Assembly to spread new college buildings, road and bridge construction, and other local projects across the state.
He is leaving office with a record $2.5 billion in savings and k-12 schools that are considered fully funded for the first time since the early 2000s, muting any potential griping about local projects.
For Deal, the most important of those may be the Gainesville tech school.
At an October ribbon-cutting ceremony, he grew emotional as he talked to a crowd of hundreds about the hundreds of hours that his top aide, Gainesville native Chris Riley, invested in the project.
“This is a great culmination of my career representing the people of this area,” he said. “But also this facility is going to be the hallmark for the entire technical college system.”
After snipping the red ribbon with an oversized pair of scissors, he and Riley posed beside a picture of two of the shiny new buildings. One was to be named after the longtime aide. The other: The Nathan Deal Economic Development Center.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.