PERRY, Ga. — Every weekend, Michael Morris and his 2-year-old son, Jacob, visit this small town’s enormous new $14 million fishing museum. They watch bream and bass swim in aquarium-size tanks. They play with an interactive model of a fishing boat and try to catch fish on a computer simulation using a rod and reel connected to a video screen.
A Cautionary Fish Tale
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Rich Addicks for The New York Times
Georgia faces $1.6 million a year in bond payments and operating costs as it considers cuts to scholarships and health care. More Photos »
And because the museum, the Go Fish Georgia Educational Center, is primarily financed by the state, their father-and-son outings cost only $5.
“It’s amazing,” said Mr. Morris, a car salesman and recreational fisherman. “When Jacob gets old enough, I hope this will be part of what makes him really get into fishing.”
But not all Georgia taxpayers are so thrilled. Even before the museum opened in October, “Go Fish” had become shorthand in state political circles for wasteful spending. Republicans and Democrats alike groaned over $1.6 million a year in bond payments and operating costs. And even supporters concede that the museum would never have gotten financed in 2007 if the legislature knew where the economy was headed.
“Hindsight is 20/20, but we should have seen this one coming,” said State Senator George Hooks, an Americus Democrat on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.
With a large state deficit looming, Go Fish has become a cautionary tale about the long-term ramifications of prerecession decisions. The state must make bond payments for the museum for the next 16 years. Meanwhile, cuts are being proposed to the state’s college scholarship program, health care and the prison system.
“We simply can’t afford it — not in this economy,” said Debbie Dooley, the Georgia coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, who likened the museum to Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” “When you want to talk about wasteful spending in Georgia, the first thing everyone brings up is Go Fish.”
And then there is the controversy over the museum’s location — in the home county of its main supporter, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican who left office this month after two terms.
Mr. Perdue said the site was chosen by independent consultants for its proximity to Interstate 75 and the state fair. But critics question whether a 13,000-person town more than 100 miles from both Atlanta and the Atlantic Coast will draw enough fishing tourists. Since it opened, the museum has drawn a small but steady crowd.
What no one disputes is that fishing is big business in Georgia, having an impact of $1.5 billion a year, state economists say. But for years, Georgia has lagged behind all neighboring states in fishing tourism. It ranks sixth in the nation in sending its fishermen to other states and 22nd in luring fishermen from elsewhere.
And before Go Fish, the largest fishing tournaments had snubbed Georgia, explaining that the state did not have boat ramps large enough to accommodate hundreds of fishermen.
Go Fish was primarily intended to increase tourism. Its main proponent, Mr. Perdue, had grown up cane-pole fishing with his grandfather on the Big Indian Creek in central Georgia. In addition to the museum, lawmakers approved $5 million to widen 18 ramps on lakes across the state.
By some measures, the investment is starting to pay off. The Forrest Wood Cup, nicknamed the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing, was held on Lake Lanier in August. And a hatchery at the museum has had success raising the type of record-size largemouth bass that trophy fishermen travel to catch.
Still the criticisms have persisted. Mr. Perdue’s spokesman, Bert Brantley, said the program was a victim of unfortunate timing. “It was a different time in 2007,” Mr. Brantley said. “It was the right decision at the time.”
For now, local school groups come by the busload for tours of aquariums displaying fish from Georgia’s various regions — from mountain streams to the Piedmont lakes to the coastal swamps. And supporters like Mr. Morris, who takes his son every week, say they will visit even more when the museum opens a real lake stocked with trout and bass this year.
“I don’t like to fish, but I love to catch,” Mr. Morris said. “Who wants to go somewhere else for three hours and not catch anything? You come here, and you’re guaranteed to go home with a fish.”