Political opponents jumped on Gov. Nathan Deal this week after he announced a corporate expansion in a hometown industrial park on land connected to his campaign chairman and another longtime backer.
Opponent cried cronyism, although it’s not clear what role Deal’s office played in the expansion location. While the governor’s campaign said there was no involvement in picking the site, a state agency said Wednesday that the local development authority got a $1.75 million state grant for the project.
Deal’s campaign chairman, Philip Wilheit, and longtime supporter Jim Walters, prominent Gainesville business leaders, were part of a partnership that owned the industrial park land before transferring it to the development authority Wilheit long headed. As part of the deal, the partnership would get paid when the lots in the park were sold, and the company plans to buy 180 acres for $5.67 million for its expansion.
About two weeks ago, the governor was in Dublin to announce a $3.5 million restoration of the city’s “skyscraper,” the First National Bank Building. Georgia Military College, which gets about $3.4 million a year in state funding, will be a tenant, opening a branch campus in Dublin.
The official announcement said the project would be a “partnership” between the college, the downtown development authority and Walters’ company. Walters owns several pieces of property in the downtown area.
The project was an inter-party development of sorts. State Democratic Party Chairman DuBose Porter, a former Dublin state representative and local newspaper publisher, was a big backer of the project and has pushed for downtown development in the city in general. His replacement in the House, Rep,. Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, a former floor leader for Deal, also worked to get the project done.
Walters has contributed about $37,000 to Deal’s campaigns and the governor appointed him to the Georgia Ports Authority. The Ports Authority board is one of the three most prestigious in state government, along with the University System Board of Regents and the Department of Natural Resources board. The AJC found earlier this year that members of those three bodies contributed nearly $1.3 million to Deal’s campaign and political action committee.