October 16, 2018

Perry’s ‘boondoggle’ becomes ‘boomdoggle’

            For as long as I’ve known Larry Walker, we have exchanged playful jabs.  If I’m passing through his hometown, I’m going to kid him about his pet project perched on the side of I-75.   
            Larry spent 32 years in the Georgia legislature.  He used his Gold Dome skills to locate the Georgia National Fair (GNF) complex in Perry.  Years ago, our mutual friend, Jim Minter, wrote in his Atlanta Journal-Constitution column that the state’s decision to put the fair and agricenter there was a “boondoggle.” 
            Larry, Jim and I have fun joking about that.  Larry is quick to point out that the GNF facilities draw 950,000 visitors per year compared to the 350,000 guests going to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  So if I’m driving down the interstate and see thousands of vehicles in the parking lot, I call Larry and tease, “Looks like nothing is going on at the Boondoggle today.”
            This year, Pam and I were among the masses to experience the 29th annual fair.  And Larry knew that I’d be on the lookout for folks from my hometown.  We didn’t have to go far.  When we stepped into executive director Stephen Shimp’s office, there was his assistant, Charla Parker Ellerbee.  We watched her grow up in Jesup’s First Baptist Church.
            Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black was anxious for us to see the newly expanded Georgia Grown exhibit.  While Pam, Janice Walker and Lydia Black were browsing through the shelves of jams and jellies, I was looking for homefolks.  Gary and Larry were trailing along.  Pointing to posters of Kent Fountain and another of Kristy Arnold, I said, “Wayne County people are everywhere.”  Gary laughed, and Larry just shook his head.
            Just like a proud daddy, Gary was eager to show off the new Baby Barn.  A cell-phone app alerts guests when piglets or calves are about to be born.  And sure enough, as we were standing there, the app beeped.  A crowd swelled around us to watch a Holstein mama deliver.  The viewers voted—on their phones—to name the female newborn “Georgia.”
            If you’d been to the GNF, you’ve probably seen the bronze statue of the mule-plowing farmer. That was Larry’s idea, too.  Georgians along the Gnat Line will tell you, “If you want something to happen, get Larry behind it.”
            I like livestock, so we had to make a round through the goat, sheep and cow barns.  Maybe I was too busy looking for homefolks.  Yep, I stepped in a big pile.  When I stopped laughing and looked up, bingo, there were Gregory Grantham and his daughter, Ali Kate.  When our children—Alan, Emily and Eric—were growing up, I warned, “Always be on your best behavior. Someone from Jesup will probably be watching you.”
            After the animals, Larry suggested we get an aerial view.  We piled into a big basket and rode the Mega Mile Ferris wheel to the top.  From 175 feet up, we surveyed the sprawling fairgrounds.  Over in the corner was former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s pet project, Go Fish.  That was our last stop of the day.  Good job, Governor … errr … Mister Secretary of Agriculture. We’ll be back with our fishing-happy grandkids.
                  Since Jim’s declaration three decades ago, the Georgia National Fair and Agricenter have done nothing but mushroom.  A forthcoming 100-room hotel will spawn a multiday conference center.  Even before that, the annual economic impact is estimated to be $83 million.
            The Georgia National Fair a “boondoggle?”
            You’ve got to be kidding.