Updated:ATLANTA — The state of Georgia has cut basic services, yet millions in tax dollars are committed to paying for a fishing museum for the next 16 years.
It is a project of former Gov. Sonny Perdue and it is nowhere near the ocean or Atlanta.
It's in the former governor's hometown and taxpayers are footing the $1.6 million-a-year bond payment. Tax watchdogs say it is government waste at its worst.
Visitors to the Georgia Go Fish Center can sit in a fighting chair simulator and fight a marlin, they can examine a giant model of a large mouth bass, or see plenty of real fish in the Go Fish hatchery.
The center is nowhere near major water or a large population center. It is 100 miles south of the state's largest city of Atlanta, in Perry. It is just 13 miles from the home of former Governor Perdue. He is the man behind the $30 million Go Fish program.
Taxpayer groups say it is a monument to Perdue in the middle of nowhere. "It is hard to find, we are paying for it and it's ridiculous," said Jared Thomas, a taxpayer advocate.
The $14 million Go Fish museum was funded by construction bonds in 2007, before the recession sunk the state budget. Now taxpayers are locked into paying $1.6 million in bond payments every year for the next 16 years.
"We are laying off teachers, cutting programs across the board and projects like this are fully funded," said Thomas.
To his credit, Perdue's Go Fish program has paid off in other areas. "Fishing in Georgia is big business," said Ted Will, the Georgia Department of National Resource's assistant chief of fisheries.
New fishing ramps on lakes across the state were funded by $5 million in state dollars to attract big-time fishing tournaments. That investment paid off.
The ramps helped Lake Lanier land the Forrest Wood Cup, considered the Super Bowl of bass fishing.
"That investment paid off big time for the local community 'cause you're talking about a $5 (million) -$10 million local impact from that huge tournament," said Will.
Go Fish is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The rest of the week is for school tours only. Channel 2 Action News sent a photographer to see how often the museum was frequented by visitors.
A Channel 2 photographer sat in the parking lot in March for two full weekdays and saw no school buses and checked again on three separate Fridays and the parking lot was nearly empty all days except for a Friday during spring break in April.
Georgia's Department of Natural Resources told Channel 2 Action News anchor Justin Farmer that the museum needs 5,000 people a month to be self-sustaining. According to the DNR, the museum only receives 1,200 a month.
At $5 a ticket the state is counting on a lot of student tours to pay the bills.
"We're hoping at least 20,000 school children come through that facility each year. We're a young fish waiting to grow to that trophy potential," said Will.
"The taxpayers don't need to be supporting this type of tourist operation on an ongoing basis," said Kelly McCutchen of Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
Georgia veteran groups are outraged that the Legislature was forced to cut veterans services statewide while spending millions on fishing.
"We need that money to take care of our veterans," said veteran Fae Casper. Casper told Farmer she is upset that a veterans home in Milledgeville was forced to close its doors after budget cuts in 2008 at the same time taxpayers are committed to funding a fishing museum till 2026.
"The bond issues, I guess we can't get out of them. So I guess we are stuck with it, but I hate to see the state of Georgia stuck with anything," said Casper.