The center was initially projected to draw 200,000 visitors, but by the time it opened in October 2010 it was expected to attract half that number. But after one full year of operating, only 15,000 visitors wandered through the Georgia attraction, according to the Telegraph of Macon.
The dismal turnout gives more ammunition to critics of then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, who supported spending $19 million on the center and statewide boat ramp construction during a budget crisis that included furloughs and layoffs of state employees. Perdue, who is from Houston County, argued at the time that refusing to build the center wouldn’t have prevented any cuts because the funding came from a bond issue.
Perdue pitched his Go Fish program as an effort to encourage fishing tourism and boost Georgia’s economy. And supporters say a stepped-up marketing campaign that began late last year and new attractions will improve attendance. That includes a 1.5-acre fish pond that opened in October and a leaky aquarium that has since been fixed.
“It’s a great facility, and I think we will get a lot more tourism traffic now that there is some signage on the interstate,” state Sen. Ross Tolleson of Perry told the newspaper. “It’s one of those things that’s a work in progress.”
The center charges $5 admission for adults and $3 for children. Department of Natural Resources figures show the center generated about $90,000 in revenue over its first 15 months. The center’s annual budget, including eight full-time and two part-time employees, is close to $700,000.
Much of the funding comes from federal fishing grants, state fishing licenses and admission sales at the center, said department spokeswoman Liz Starkey. She said the center was never meant to be self-sufficient and noted that attendance doubled from January 2011 to last month, when it attracted about 1,000 visitors.
“I think we will definitely be able to improve attendance,” she said. “It’s a great place to have a family fun day.”
On a recent weekday, about a dozen visitors wandered the facility, which features fishing stimulators, collections of old fishing reels and a fish hatchery.
Debbie Bennett and her 8-year-old son Aaron were using pieces of hot dog to try to catch fish in the pond. She said they have made several visits to the center, and it’s one of Aaron’s favorite places to go.
Jeremy Wixson, the center’s manager, estimates he’s seen 50 people catch their first fish from the pond since it opened.
“It’s a sport they can participate in their whole life,” he said.