PERRY -- When state officials announced plans to build the Go Fish Georgia Educational Center in Perry in 2007, they predicted annual attendance of 200,000.
By the time it opened in October 2010, the projection had dropped to 100,000. As it turned out, even that was too ambitious.
The center in reality drew about 15,000 in its first 12 months of operation, giving plenty of ammunition to those who criticized then-Gov. Sonny Perdue for spending $19 million on the center and statewide mega-boat ramp construction during a budget crisis. Cutbacks at the time included furloughs and layoffs of state employees.
The boat ramps, which included large parking areas, were intended to draw fishing tournaments to the state. Some argue the results of that have been dubious, with 14 of the 17 boat ramps completed and only five hosting tournaments.
Perdue, who is from Houston County, touted Go Fish as an effort to encourage fishing tourism. He said the $19 million was coming from a bond issue, therefore no cuts would have been prevented had the center not been built.
Supporters say a stepped-up marketing campaign that began in November will improve attendance, and only recently has the center been fully completed. An approximate 1.5-acre fish pond opened in October, said center program manager Jeremy Wixson, and that has already proven one of the centers most popular features, along with a wildlife section that includes hunting simulators.
Also, one of the centers largest aquariums was shut down due to a leak, but that has been repaired. A problem with the filtering system led to algae growth and green water at times. Wixson said steps have been taken to correct that problem, but he wont know for sure whether it will be an issue this year until the weather warms up. The largest tanks are outdoors.
The center features large and small tanks totaling about 180,000 gallons with 70 species of fish and other aquatic wildlife found in Georgia lakes, rivers and swamps. It has fishing simulators and a wall covered with replicas of state-record fish. It also has a fish hatchery, which raises sturgeon, walleye and potentially any other kind of freshwater fish. The fish are used to restore populations in public waters, Wixson said, and the hatchery currently is focused on restoring walleye and sturgeon in the Coosa River system.
It also has an area with three alligators.
State Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, said he believes attendance will steadily improve with better marketing, including billboards that have been placed on Interstate 75.
The first year, there was probably not the proper amount of marketing done, said Tolleson, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee. Its a great facility, and I think we will get a lot more tourism traffic now that there is some signage on the interstate. Its one of those things thats a work in progress.
Center funded through fees, grants
The center is closed on Monday, open only to school groups Tuesday through Thursday, and open to the public Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children.
According to Department of Natural Resources figures, attendance in the first 15 months of operation, through the end of January, was 16,242 general admission visitors and 2,789 educational participants, for a total of 19,031, generating $89,361 in revenue.
The annual budget, including the cost of operations, eight full-time and two part-time employees, is $692,287.
According to DNR spokeswoman Liz Starkey, the funding comes from federal Sport Fish Restoration grants, state fishing licenses and admission sales at the center. The federal money comes from federal taxes on ammunition, guns, fishing equipment and motorboat fuel. The state can get the federal money, she said, only if it spends 100 percent of fishing and hunting license revenue on wildlife programs.
She said there was no revenue projection when the center opened, and it is not meant to be self-sufficient.
She also noted that in January 2011, the center drew 532 visitors, and this January it drew 1,017.
I think we will definitely be able to improve attendance, she said. Its a great place to have a family fun day.
Visitors enjoy facility
Although on Thursdays the center is normally open only to school groups, an exception was made last week due to a youth event at the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter. About a dozen visitors were at the center around noon, and those interviewed said they were enjoying it. The center is located just off Perry Parkway at the south end of the fairgrounds.
Debbie Bennett of Kathleen 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 its one of Aarons favorite places to go.
He said he likes it because the pond is catch and release, so there are plenty of fish to catch.
I really like the fishing here, he said. The fish make me mad though. They keep taking my bait. Stupid fish.
Wixson estimated that since the pond opened, he has probably seen 50 people, from 2 years old to 60, catch their first fish from the pond.
Its a sport they can participate in their whole life, he said.
Fishing poles and bait -- hot dog pieces kept in a cooler -- are provided for visitors who want to try their luck in the pond.
Billy Little of Pickens County in north Georgia was making his first visit to the center with his son. He said he only found out about it after stopping by the Visitors Center in Perry on Thursday while attending an event at the fairgrounds.
Its very interesting, he said, as he browsed a collection of old fishing reels.
Boat ramps meant to boost tourism
Go Fish is a public-private partnership that included private donations to help build the center and the boat ramps. The majority of the ramps were planned along the coast and in south Georgia, though there are also ramps in Hall and Troup counties.
They are intended to help bring tournaments around the state.
Some have questioned the economic impact projections the state has offered for the tournaments, but Tolleson said even if those projections are off, he believes the actual impact is worth the investment.
Each ramp cost $800,000 to $1 million with the state putting up $400,000 and the rest coming from local communities. Tolleson said once constructed, the ramps do not carry any ongoing costs.
There is big business in fishing, he said. The local communities can market those, and you have people coming in and eating in restaurants and staying in hotels.
He said there has been no effort to remove Go Fish funding from this years budget.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.