Wrightsville lands a new owner for vacant catfish plant

WRIGHTSVILLE — This small Middle Georgia town may have finally reeled in the big one that got away.

A catfish processing plant built almost a decade ago but never opened got a new owner Thursday. Atlanta businessman Warren Thomas said his company, Georgia Aquaculture Inc., expects to open by mid-July and hire as many as 125 people in this job-starved community.

“This is going to be a major economic impact,” Thomas told a gathering at the chamber of commerce office here. “What should have happened 10 years is happening today.”

Construction on what was to be The Fish Factory began in late 1999, but before it could open, its owner, David Rabhan, defaulted on the loan. He later was sentenced to prison on fraud charges related to The Fish Factory loan and a phony scheme to build baby food and candy factories in the African kingdom of Swaziland.

Mayor Phillip Boatwright said the plant finally opening will help erase some of those bad memories in Johnson County, where unemployment has climbed to more than 12 percent.

“We hope it will be successful,” the mayor said. “We need it so bad. We’ve got so many people out of work, being a bedroom community like we are.”

Thomas said the company will start up with about 25 workers and “ramp it up from there.” Through ancillary businesses in Wrightsville and surrounding areas, some 300 to 400 jobs could be attributed directly or indirectly to the plant, he said.

The facility will start off processing locally raised catfish and possibly expand to include fish and shrimp from the Georgia coast, Thomas said.

The company projects an economic impact of $9 million its first year in operation and $40 million by its fourth year.

“To some people that’s not a lot of money,” Thomas said. “I know for a community like Wrightsville, that can change lives.”

About three dozen people attended Thursday’s meeting. They stood an applauded when Dublin real estate agent Jerry Hall handed Thomas the keys to the plant.

“We wish him every good wish,” said Mary Jo Stephens, an industry recruiter for the city. “We’re not going to just wish, we’re going to work to make this successful.”

Thomas said the company’s investment in the purchase and operation of the plant is in the “$5 million range.”“We’re putting up a lot of our own personal funds into this,” he said.

Boatwright said talk of the plant’s opening has created a buzz around town.

“People are excited about it,” he said.

That excitement led chamber officials to post a sign on the front down that read: “No Applications for Fish Plant at This Time.”

Maybe not at this time, but soon.

The company plans to begin hiring a few weeks before it opens.

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.