As It Happens

Georgia politician stands by giant topiary chicken that got him ousted as mayor

Jim Puckett put all his eggs in one basket when he started building the tallest topiary in the world. But his dream tourist attraction cost him his job — and now the steel framework of a giant chicken looms over the town of Fitzgerald, Ga.

The chicken — which will house a bed and breakfast — has so far cost the city $291K US

Jim Puckett says the giant chicken topiary will be a bed and breakfast for tourists and businesses driving by Fitzgerald, Georgia. (Submitted by Joe Kyte/Topiary Joe)

Jim Puckett put all his eggs in one basket when he started building what he hopes will be the tallest topiary in the world. But his dream tourist attraction cost him his job as mayor — and now the steel framework of a giant chicken looms over the town of Fitzgerald, Ga.

Earlier this month, Puckett experienced a crushing defeat at the ballot box when he ran for a re-election, with 95 per cent of people voting against him. The topiary chicken, which has so far cost his office $291,000 US, had been a well-known campaign issue. 

The already long, drawn-out construction of the 19-metre tall topiary chicken is on hold until mayor-elect Jason Holt begins his term. Puckett, who hopes to still see the project completed, is holding office until January. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Mayor Puckett, the voters have spoken. Do you have any regrets about your giant chicken?

No, ma'am, none whatsoever. My giant chicken has done exactly what I wanted it to do and that's promote the city of Fitzgerald.

Well, how has it done that? You spent [nearly] $300,000 [US] and you just got defeated. You got trumped in this election campaign, so why is it a success for you?

We've got a great little town and a great little story here, but I needed a hook, and this chicken has garnered us worldwide recognition. 

The voters obviously don't see the importance of that, but they knew going in.... One of the very few things I promised them was that you might not like everything that I do, but you're never going to say I sat around and didn't do anything.

Puckett's dream of building a 19-metre tall topiary chicken has been put on hold after he was defeated in a recent mayoral election where the chicken was a major issue. (Courtesy of City of Fitzgerald, Georgia)

OK, but this giant topiary chicken never got completed. I mean, it has no greenery on it. 

In February, hopefully, when they put the greenery on it, it's going to end up being the world's largest topiary chicken. And it's got an Airbnb in it that you'll be able to rent out. [But] all this is speculation now because this will be up to the next administration on how they're going to finish it. 

What you got is a giant rebar silhouette of a chicken, right?

Yeah.... We've got a camera up live for about a year and a half now so the people around the world can see it being constructed.

You got lots of attention from everywhere, including us, I guess. But your local people, they're pretty critical of it. They said, "Who the hell needs a chicken in Fitzgerald? We need housing." That was one quote in the Wall Street Journal.... What do you say to those people?

There are plenty of people that completely support [the] chicken and understand what we're doing. The older people that [the Wall Street Journal] spoke to there don't understand what we're doing, and I get it. Their concerns are ... what we're spending money on. [They say] "I've got a pothole in front of my house." [But] there's two different pots of money. 

This is not money that I took away from the general fund or money that we took from anything else that could be done with some of the things that they're asking about. 

We did an entire project, put the slideshow up on our website explaining to people what we've done, how we've done it and why we've done it, and that it's already working. 

Every time it hits a national article or interview, I get calls from people saying, "Hey, I've got my credit card in my hand. I'm ready to book that chicken right now. We want to come to Fitzgerald." I'm not kidding.

Every time it hits a national article or interview, I get calls from people saying, 'Hey, I've got my credit card in my hand. I'm ready to book that chicken right now. We want to come to Fitzgerald.' I'm not kidding.- Jim Puckett, outgoing mayor of Fitzgerald, Ga.

 

But why a chicken?

In Fitzgerald, we have these wild Burmese chickens that run around our town. 

In the late '70s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture did an experiment in Tifton around about 30 minutes from here with these wild Burmese chickens. I don't know all of the details of what happened, but those wild Burmese chickens that they released somehow migrated to Fitzgerald and they're all over town. 

You may go to a red light down on Main Street — and this is no exaggeration — and a family of chickens may walk right in front of you across the street.

The locals have a love/hate relationship with chickens. Some love them, think they're beautiful and gorgeous. Some can't stand them because they get up in trees beside their house and they crow. And we actually have a city ordinance that you can't harm these chickens. 

Inevitably, when I bring a firm to Fitzgerald or a prospect [to] Fitzgerald that wants to open up a manufacturing plant, one of the very first questions we ever get is, "Hey ... can we see the wild chickens?" Because they've heard about them.

So I decided one day: You know what? We're going to build them a wild chicken. And that's why chicken.

The giant, topiary chicken is inspired by the wild Burmese chickens that run around the town of Fitzgerald. (Georgia Drone Pros/YouTube)

OK, so you've got the chicken almost built. What if the new mayor decides he's going to have it put down?

He won't do that.... If he did, then, I mean, there's nothing I could do then. That would be tragic. It would kill me, but that's the new administration's problem. 

He's already said that we're definitely too much into the chicken to not finish it. 

So you think this giant chicken can still lay the golden egg for you?

I do. I definitely, definitely, definitely do. 

You're the third interview I've done today.... We were on Sirius XM radio the other day [and] one of the hosts was talking about Fitzgerald and how he wanted to come see the topiary chickens. 

All I wanted this thing to do was to get the word out and let people say, "Oh, there might be an interesting place to go visit."


Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Jim Puckett by Chris Trowbridge.

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