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State bid for fishing tourists has local model

APPLING - When Gov. Sonny Perdue unveiled his Go Fish Georgia initiative last winter, the response was underwhelming.

Legislative Democrats wondered how the governor could push spending $19 million to lure more anglers to the state while continuing to cut education and hesitating to rescue the struggling PeachCare program.

Even Perdue's fellow Republicans in the House initially tried to cut the proposal to just $6.5 million.

But don't count Beda Johnson among the naysayers.

"I was excited to hear about Go Fish," said Johnson, executive director of the Columbia County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It was like, 'Finally, somebody gets it.' "

Johnson and others in Columbia County who cater to tourists already know what Perdue hopes the rest of Georgia is about to find out: There's money in fishing.

A national bass fishing tournament held last April at county-run Wildwood Park on Clarks Hill Lake generated more than $400,000 for Columbia and the surrounding region, up from about $335,000 produced by a similar event the year before, according to the visitors bureau.

Much of that revenue came from hotel rooms booked for five nights not only in Columbia but also in Augusta-Richmond, McDuffie and Lincoln counties.

"Mega" ramps

Such economic impact was only possible because Columbia County spent about $1.1 million in special local option sales tax funds several years ago to build six "mega" boat ramps at Wildwood capable of accommodating large numbers of boats, along with 231 super-sized parking spaces.

As a result, Clarks Hill Lake now enjoys a virtual monopoly in Georgia on national fishing tournaments, the kind the ESPN2 network features on its weekly "Bass Center" series.

"Sonny's talking about bringing fishing tournaments here," said Mike Brodhecker, facilities coordinator for the Columbia County Recreation Department. "We're already doing it."

But Clarks Hill may soon be joined in the fishing tournament business by a dozen or more waterways across Georgia.

The Go Fish Georgia initiative will provide $5 million in initial funding to build a series of mega boat ramps on lakes, rivers and reservoirs.

Sites being eyed by the state include lakes Lanier, Allatoona, Oconee, the Walter F. George Reservoir and the Oconee, Ocmulgee and Altamaha rivers.

John Biagi, assistant chief of fisheries for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said there won't be enough state money available to build all of the planned ramps at once.

He said the DNR will be looking for local governments to kick in some of the needed funding and, given the economic benefits, he expects the competition to be spirited.

Biagi said that while the state hopes to use the initiative to aid the economies of rural communities most in need of a boost, the most out-of-the-way locales won't be suitable.

"We're looking for places with the off-site infrastructure, hotels, motels, restaurants, to support anglers while they're fishing on the lake," he said.

Biagi said the DNR expects to announce at least some of the selected sites by late this summer.

Fishing center

Further away in the state's planning is construction of a fishing center, which will double as a hatchery and tourist attraction.

Most of the initial funding for Go Fish - $14 million - will go toward the center, which likely will be built near an interstate highway to allow easy access.

Biagi and others working on the initiative recently visited the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, about 80 miles southeast of Dallas, to get ideas.

Like the planned Georgia center, it includes a hatchery and visitors center.

Director Allen Forshage said the $18 million facility's mission has broadened since it opened in 1996 from research to raising awareness of fishing as a fun activity.

"It was built around having a hatchery," he said. "(But) we were seeing a decline in the number of licensed anglers. ... So, we decided to build a visitors center around fish and fisheries."

The center also features an education component. About one-third of its 60,000 annual visitors are students on field trips.

But Forshage said the center's 1.2-acre public fishing pond also is popular with families.

He said about 30,000 visitors fish there every year, including about 500 children who catch their first fish.

"Our goal is everybody catches a fish," Forshage said. "We have a pretty good catch rate."

Biagi said the DNR is looking for at least 120 acres for the Georgia fishing center at a site close to a large source of water that could supply the hatchery. He said the location also should be close enough to a population center to attract student field trips.

Pitching in

With the total price tag for the center pegged at $23 million, Biagi said the state also will be looking for local governments and/or corporate sponsors willing to help underwrite the project.

Glenn Dowling, executive vice president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, suggested interested counties seek to tap the OneGeorgia Authority, which provides economic development grants to local communities.

"This is like industrial infrastructure as far as I'm concerned, to churn the economy in a county," he said.

Dowling dismissed the cool reception Go Fish Georgia initially received in the legislature.

He noted that, by the time lawmakers adjourned for the year, Perdue had all $19 million he had requested for Go Fish but had to be satisfied with $45 million of the $50 million he wanted for land conservation.

"We pushed it real hard in the General Assembly," Dowling said. "(But) it wasn't the wildlife federation. It was people from (legislators') districts back home saying, 'We want Go Fish Georgia.' "