State records show Georgia lost an estimated $65 million supporting state museums and halls of fame. A Channel 2 investigation found lawmakers dumped one of these tourist attractions, but taxpayers still are paying $700,000 a year to fund it.
The Georgia Museum of Agriculture is located off I-75 in Tifton in South Georgia. Thousands of cars pass by it each year, but it appears very few stop. A Channel 2 photographer sat outside the museum for four days in August and September and saw very little traffic headed inside.
The 95-acre museum that opened 35 years ago captures farm life in the 1870s. It has cornfields, a blacksmith shop, a feed store grist mall and a print shop.
Two years ago, it was losing $1.2 million a year, while Georgia legislators were cutting education budgets and budgets from other vital services.
During recent General Assembly sessions, legislators cut funding to state tourist attractions, like the failed Golf Hall of Fame in Augusta. Lawmakers spared the agriculture museum by giving it to the nearby Abraham Baldwin College of Agriculture State University.
Critics said lawmakers simply hit the cost by quietly moving the museum from the general budget to the Regents budget.
"It's an obvious shell game," said local taxpayer advocate Jared Thomas. "The idea that we shut them down because we took it from one ledger to the next is robbing Peter to pay Paul, and it doesn't pay any dividends for Georgia taxpayer."
The college deal puts the museum buildings into the state's maintenance fund. That means the college is guaranteed tax dollars for the museum every year. State records show the museum is set to get $700,000 this year and another $700,000 in 2012.
David Bridges is the president of the Abraham Baldwin College of Agriculture. He said when the university took over the museum, it slashed costs by laying off management. He said university administrators now run it.
"We have in mind that over time the place will become relatively self-supporting," Bridges said.
Channel 2's Justin Farmer asked several state legislators if the museum funding was misleading to taxpayers. Farmer requested interviews from more than a dozen lawmakers. Only one agreed, and then he canceled at the last minute.
University officials said the museum is educational and is visited each school year by 8,000 children. They said they generate $100,000 in ticket sales and $100,000 in the rental of this conference center connected to the museum. They hope to secure private donation to operate the facility.
"Will we ever really make money? I don't know," said Bridges.