BREC administration favors fairgrounds site on Airline for new Baton Rouge zoo, commissioners say

After more than five months of searching for a new site for BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo, the BREC administration is leaning towards its own Airline Highway Park, better known as the Baton Rouge fairgrounds, according to several BREC Commissioners who have met with the administration on the issue.

“There are multiple sites we have talked about, but this is the one that has come up the most,” says BREC Board of Commissioners Chairman Lloyd Benson II. “They’re really considering it and there’s been a lot of good dialog about it.”

Relocating the zoo from Greenwood Park in north Baton Rouge to the 133-acre Airline Highway park is not a new idea. A consulting team that studied a zoo move several years ago suggested the fairgrounds as a potentially suitable site.

But BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight took the site off the table after the park partially flooded in August 2016. In recent months, however, the administration has revisited the idea and determined there’s enough property on the site that didn’t flood to build a zoo there.

“I think it’s a great location,” says Commissioner Larry Selders. “It’s visible. It’s not far from the interstate and it wouldn’t cost the taxpayers anything to buy the land.”

BREC staff has been researching potential sites for a new zoo since last August, when the board approved giving McKnight the green light to pursue the controversial zoo move. McKnight and advocates of relocating the zoo say the facility cannot survive in its current location.

Opponents of the idea, however, say moving the zoo out of north Baton Rouge would deliver a devastating blow to the area’s economy, and that improving the zoo at its current location would be less costly and would boost flagging attendance.

McKnight has promised to come back to the commission by March with a recommendation. Her office says it is premature to discuss anything until then.

Though several sites have been discussed in recent months, Commissioner Mike Walker says the fairgrounds is the only one that is really viable because it’s availability and won’t cost anything to acquire.

“There’s nothing else out there and we’ve been looking,” says Walker, who is a real estate broker. “There’s especially nothing out there that someone is going to give you for free.”

Like Selders, Walker says he likes the idea of relocating the zoo to Airline Highway, a high-growth area near the Ascension Parish border that he believes will ensure the zoo’s long-term financial sustainability.

“I love Baker,” he says. “But the long-term financial sustainability is the only thing that matters.”

Walker points out, though, that finding a new site for the zoo is really the least of BREC’s problems. Far more pressing issues are how BREC will come up with the $150 million to build a new zoo and what it will do with the existing zoo in the meantime.

“It could take five or 10 years to build a new zoo,” he says. “We can’t let the existing zoo continue to deteriorate. We must do something to improve it. We can’t lose sight of that.”

The commission meets Feb. 22. It is unclear whether McKnight will present her recommendation at that meeting or in March, but Benson says he would like something soon.

“We don’t want to belabor the process and drag this out any longer,” he says.

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