ATLANTA — The Go Fish program was spawned in controversy, and now that it’s operating, it continues to draw critics as it falls below expectations.
A year after then-Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed it in 2007, critics complained that taxpayers shouldn’t fund a $19 million program to attract anglers when the state was cutting its budget, laying off workers and imposing furloughs for teachers, troopers and prison guards.
Perdue defended the program on two grounds.
First, the construction of 17 large boat ramps across the state to accommodate tournaments and an exposition center would be paid partially with matching private funds and partially by borrowing money with bonds that cannot legally be used for day-to-day operating expenses such as employee salaries. So the $19 million couldn’t have prevented any layoffs, cuts or furloughs had it not gone to Go Fish.
Second, he said, fishing’s growing popularity means the state can reap the benefits of a new kind of tourism.
In October 2010, Perdue told those attending the opening of the center why he proposed it.
“Fishing is an important part of my childhood and an activity that I still enjoy today. The Go Fish Georgia Initiative encourages families to spend time outdoors together making memories that will last a lifetime,” he said. ”It also will allow us to improve our fishing resources and boat access, drawing more tourists and professional anglers into our state to fish which will have a positive economic impact in many rural areas.”
The payoff of the boat ramps may also fall short of projections.
So far, 14 of the planned 17 ramps are completed, but only five of them hosted tournaments. None are planned this year either for the six ramps on the Savannah River, the Oconee River or Lake Blackshear. Lake Russell, which didn’t host one last year, has an April tournament scheduled.
Randy DuTeau, the sports development manager for the Augusta Sports Council, said there can be a long lead time in organizing tournaments, which may explain why the newest ramps, such as the one on the Savannah near Augusta, haven’t hosted one yet.
“Working events sometimes have to be booked a couple of years out,” he said.
Those 11 events last year drew 2,500 anglers, according to Department of Natural Resources figures.
Information the agency prepared estimated the economic punch to West Point Lake for its May 5-8 Bassmaster Elite Pride of Georgia Tournament at as much as $5 million.
Though modest compared to some economic-impact figures in the sports world, the $5 million is likely to be inflated, according to Bruce Seaman, an associate professor of economics at Georgia State University.
“I would be genuinely interested in how they did that study,” he said.
Last year’s version of the same event drew 99 anglers to West Point. That impact figure is equal to each buying a new, $40,000 boat upon arrival.
In such a rural area, money brought in by visitors has little of the multiplier effect that can magnify spending on hotels, restaurants and souvenirs in a larger city, said Jeff Humphreys, the director of the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth.
Columbia County drew 14,000 to its Wildwood Park on Thurmond Lake for the ESPN Bassmaster Tournament in 2010, according to Barry Smith, the community and leisure services director for the county’s convention and visitors bureau.
Residents rented their lakeside homes to some of the professional teams or sponsors. Hotels and restaurants were full, and some fans came up days before the event to scope out viewing spots on the lake.
“It’s a wonderful thing when you see tags from trucks five, six states away,” Smith said. “You say, ... this thing is working.’”
Yet he pegs the economic impact of that event at just $1.5 million, far below the figure the state uses in talking about the potential for a rural area with fewer restaurants or hotels.
Still, Columbia County officials are pleased with their experience with Go Fish. The economic impact of that one event nearly equals the cost to build the six ramps and expanded parking lot needed to hold a major tournament.
The television exposure raised awareness of Thurmond Lake for anglers all over the country, and the long-term impact if they eventually visit could continue for years.
“Columbia County doesn’t have a convention center. We don’t have a huge conference center, but we do have the lake, and we’re capitalizing on that,” Smith said.
That’s essentially the rationale Perdue used in convincing lawmakers to fund his Go Fish initiative.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s spending recommendations don’t call for major cuts to the only ongoing expense, the education center. But legislators have only just begun considering the budget, and it’s too early to tell if they’re inclined to throw this fish back.
The 30,000-square-foot Go Fish Education Center in Perry was supposed to attract 100,000 visitors annually and generate a $6.3 million economic impact for Houston County, south of Macon.
The tournaments that could be hosted at the “mega ramps” the program constructed across the state were supposed to draw additional tourists and generate as much as $5 million in local economic impact for a routine event and up to $27 million for a major one.
However, a sportsman reviewing this program might conclude it’s not a keeper.
“Located on approximately 120 acres at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry, the Go Fish Georgia Center is the cornerstone of a statewide effort to promote and enhance boating and fishing tourism, and to boost economic development in communities across the state,” an announcement from Perdue’s office reads.
Figures obtained by Morris News Service from the Department of Natural Resources show that in 14 months of operation, the education center has had just 15,301 visitors, and only 2,613 participated in its education programs.
The revenue has also fallen far short of projections. Since opening, the center has taken in just $83,508, or an average of $5,964 per month.
At a recent meeting of the Coastal Caucus at the Capitol, Rep. Ellis Black, R-Valdosta, asked Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Williams about it.
“I’ve been at two meetings lately when questions have been asked about it,” he said. “I’ve been by it, and it looks like attendance is low.”
Williams said problems with leaky aquariums and cutbacks on student field trips depressed attendance.
“Attendance is creeping up,” he said. “I can’t disagree with you. We’d like it to get better.”
Just 259 people walked through the door in December 2010, but 1,088 visited last month — a threefold increase, but still far below target.