Image: Plains Visitor Information Center
Penny Smith  /  AP file
The Plains Visitor Information Center in Plains, Ga. — the hometown of former President Jimmy Carter — stands as a reminder that even one of the most sacred names in Georgia politics can fall victim to a budget crisis.
updated 3/23/2009 7:56:35 PM ET 2009-03-23T23:56:35

On the outskirts of Jimmy Carter's ancestral home, miles from the nearest interstate, sits a state shrine to Georgia's native president.

The Plains Visitor Information Center pays tribute to the peanut farmer-turned-president, and it also stands as a reminder that even one of the most sacred names in Georgia politics can fall victim to a budget crisis.

Despite a campaign led by leaders of Carter's hometown — and the Democrats who represent his district — the center is on the verge of losing its state funding. The latest budget proposal passed by the House on March 18 strips the center of $186,000 it cost to run last year.

State officials say that Plains residents may be able to keep the humble center open by staffing it with volunteers and picking up the tab for other costs. But that's enraged politicians from southwest Georgia who say the state should uphold its end of the bargain.

"It's shortsighted to even contemplate closing the welcome center," said state Rep. Mike Cheokas, D-Americus, who counts Carter as one of his constituents. "We are definitely on the map and it would be a mistake in any way, shape and fashion to close it down."

State faces $2.6 billion budget deficit
The battle began in January, when Gov. Sonny Perdue's budget proposed closing down the center amid a budget deficit that tops $2.6 billion.

Perdue and his supporters said the state had to make plenty of difficult decisions, and one of them was a proposed $6.5 million cut to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which totaled roughly 18 percent of the program's budget.

The Plains outpost, which resembles a log cabin, is in some ways an easy target. It is the least-visited of Georgia's 11 state-run visitor's centers, attracting 65,000 people last year. By comparison, centers on heavily trafficked routes along busy interstate highways routinely attract several hundred thousand drivers each year.

Running the Plains center costs Georgia about $3 per visitor — a far higher ratio than some of the state's busier visitor centers.

"From an efficiency standpoint, you look at the places where you get the most bang for the buck," said Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley.

But critics say the move could violate a little-known state law that requires the state to keep it open. State Sen. George Hooks, the Democrat who holds Carter's former Senate seat, also contends Georgia is responsible for keeping the center open.

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"That should be sacred land, with a new president going in and the attention going into tourism in the economic doldrums," said Hooks, the dean of the Senate.

The state visitor center sprung up more than three decades ago, years before the National Parks Service opened up sites nearby. It now operates museums at the rail depot that was his campaign headquarters, his high school and his boyhood farm.

A look at volunteer staffing
But Georgia center director Penny Smith said the state-funded outpost stands out because it is focused on pitching other Georgia attractions.

"We are a destination. The visitors don't accidentally get here, and they're not just stopping to use the restroom," said Smith. "This helps us promote more of the state."

The center's staffers are often peppered with questions each day about what it is like to live in Carter's rural county.

"One of the main questions I hear is, 'I can't believe the dude from such a small town can become a president,'" said Claudia Walker, who works a few hours at the center each day. "They think you're supposed to come from a big city."

And visitors often leave with a trove of brochures with information about other sites in Georgia.

"It gives you a starting point," said Bill Herdlicka, a visitor from Rice Lake, Wis., who stopped by the center with his wife on a recent drive to Florida.

Alison Tyrer, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, said officials are exploring options to keep elements of the center running if the state funding is cut. And the governor's office suggested it could be run by community volunteers.

"If there's a way to keep it open, we're fine," said Brantley. "Maybe a way for locals to keep it open, to staff it with volunteers."

Hooks, though, is not holding his breath. He vowed to revive the funding as the budget proposal moves through the Senate.

"We owe it to the president," he said.

If you go
Georgia Visitor Information Center-Plains: 1763 U.S. Hwy. 280., Plains, Ga.; 229-824-7477. Open daily, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

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