BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight, citing a 2015 study, said the only way to attract the donors necessary to fund much-needed upgrades and improvements is to move the zoo to a yet-to-be-determined south Baton Rouge location. (Photo by Don Kadair)
On August 24, BREC’s board of commissioners will decide whether to move forward with plans to relocate the 47-year-old BREC Baton Rouge Zoo from its home in Greenwood Park, and replace it with a host of new amenities that include soccer fields, a water park, an adventure playground and wilderness trails.
Though the commission’s decision will only be a step in what still promises to be a lengthy process of study and planning, it will be controversial. The future of the aging zoo has become a flashpoint in a community that is steeped these days in polarizing issues.
Some have tried to make the zoo debate about race and economic disparity. They argue that taking the zoo out of north Baton Rouge would rob the economically depressed area of one of its few attractions, and they say swapping the zoo, which will cost at least $110 million to build new, for a regional Greenwood Park, which has an estimated $40 million price tag, wouldn’t be an even trade.
But the zoo debate really isn’t a racial one. Rather, it’s about what makes the most sense for the community as a whole. What do north Baton Rouge residents want for the sprawling 660-acre Greenwood Park? What location for a zoo would draw the biggest crowds? How much would well-heeled donors be willing to give to build this new attraction?
The questions are not easy to answer and Baton Rouge is not alone in asking them. Communities around the country are also dealing with the issue, asking themselves what to do with their aging zoos, how much money to pump into them, and whether it makes more sense to relocate, renovate, scale down or, perhaps, even close altogether.
“Almost every zoo in the country grapples with how to continue to maintain and improve their infrastructure and there are conversations happening all across the country,” says David Walsh, a national zoo consultant with the Pennsylvania-based firm Zoo Advisors. “A lot of people say they’d like to start from scratch. You hear that talk from time to time, but it is expensive to do that. It comes down to a dollar question. What’s the business model? The sustainability factor?”
There’s no single answer. But in a city that’s just 80 miles upriver from one of the nation’s best zoos, the Audubon Zoo, in a state that recently turned its nose up at a gasoline tax hike to fund desperately needed highway and bridge projects, some are questioning whether Baton Rouge needs a zoo at all, much less one that will cost $110 million, regardless of its location.
A question of location?
At its June 22 meeting, the BREC commission heard from dozens of public speakers, who weighed in one side of the zoo debate or the other. One thing they all agreed on is this: Something has to be done with the zoo. At its current location, in its current condition, it’s not sustainable for the long term.
Between 2012 and 2016, attendance fell more than 11% and revenues declined more than 7%, yet expenses increased nearly 34%. There’s no sign the tide will turn.
Critics of BREC and its relocation proposal say part of the problem is BREC doesn’t do enough to promote the zoo, adding there are plenty of opportunities to advertise the attraction with highway signage, for instance, that BREC doesn’t bother to do.
“Where are the signs on the interstate advertising the zoo?” says architect Coleman Brown, whose community group City Center Development District is leading opposition to the zoo relocation effort. “You can go to DOTD and get a sign for free that advertises an exit for an attraction off the highway. People don’t even know the zoo is there. Zoo management is overlooking a bunch of simple things they could do.”
An even bigger problem, Brown and others say, is a lack of investment in the zoo. To an extent, BREC concedes, this is true. Since 2005, the agency has spent nearly $8 million on major capital improvements, including the $3.4 million Asian Tiger exhibit in 2010 and the $3.1 million new entryway and plaza in 2007.
Though that’s more than BREC has spent on any other existing facility during that time, it’s not enough, says BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight, and it pales in comparison to the big bucks first-rate zoos invest every few years building sexy new exhibits.
“It is definitely not okay to continue with the current situation, which is that we fund it at $5 million or $6 million every 10 years,” she says. “We recognize the need to invest in the zoo and therein lies why we are pursuing the update.”
The issue, McKnight says, is BREC lacks the money to make needed investments in the zoo, and affluent donors in the community have indicated they’d be more willing to pony up for a new zoo if built in a more commercially viable location.
A now controversial feasibility study in 2015 by Philadelphia-based consulting firm Schultz & Williams conducted 30 in-depth interviews with stakeholders, community leaders and potential well heeled donors. It concluded that while renovating in place or relocating would cost roughly the same—an estimated $110 million—building a new zoo made more sense. Why? Because it would be easier to raise philanthropic dollars, attract more visitors, generate more revenues and could be completed in shorter time frame—as opposed to a decade or more to renovate the existing facility.
Moving may make more sense, but where to is far from clear. Zoo Director Phil Frost says several potential locations have been suggested, and if the BREC commission gives him the green light to pursue them, he’ll begin negotiations with landowners in earnest.
“We’ve looked at several potential sites that are very, very feasible at this point,” Frost says. “We’ve had people come to us. I just spoke to one of the legislators a few days ago and suggested an area. So they’re out there but we have to get a commitment from the commission that they want to move in this direction and then we can sit down with property owners.”
A 2016 follow-up conceptual plan to the 2015 Schultz & Williams study identified two potential south Baton Rouge locations for the new zoo: BREC’s Airline Highway Park, and a tract along Nicholson Drive near the Preserve at Harveston planned unit development. BREC officials, however, took the Airline Highway location off the table after it flooded in August 2016. But the Harveston site remains a possibility. Mike Wampold, who is developing Harveston and owns adjacent property that could be the site of the new zoo, says he might be willing to partner with BREC and donate a portion of his land for the zoo, but only if adjacent landowners are also willing to put up property. What he won’t do, he says, is do the whole deal by himself.
“I would be a team player with others out there,” he says, adding that BREC has not approached him or made any preliminary offers.
McKnight isn’t sold on the Nicholson Drive area, however, despite the recommendations of the 2016 study. She prefers a site farther north, away from the river, and along the heavily travelled Interstates 10 or 12. One site BREC is considering, sources say, is land near Blue Bayou Water Park.
But that land is pricey and real estate agents question why a landowner would want to give up such valuable property for a zoo, particularly when BREC isn’t interested in buying the land, preferring to lease the site or acquire it through a donation.
“I can’t see putting a zoo on a prime piece of real estate like that,” says George Kurz of Kurz and Hebert Commercial Real Estate. “That would not be highest and best use. A smarter move would be to go off of the Central Thruway, which has a lot of land that could be manipulated and would be abundant at a very reasonable price.”
In the early 2000s, Buffalo, New York—which boasts the nation’s third-oldest zoo—faced a situation similar to Baton Rouge. Attendance at the now 148-year-old facility was down. Exhibits were outdated, and some were blaming the zoo’s troubles on its relatively small, 23-acre location in Delaware Park, about five miles north of the city’s downtown. In 2002, a consulting firm recommended relocating the zoo to a new bigger location. Estimated cost: $250 million.
Troubled by the price tag and certain it would be unable to raise that much money, the zoo went in a different direction, hiring Seattle-based consultants PJA to do a master plan for the zoo at its existing location. The 10-year plan would cost an estimated $75 million to implement and called for overhauling the exhibits, one by one.
It ultimately took 12 years to complete, two years longer than budgeted. But today, all the original elements of the master plan have been implemented, attendance is averaging around 500,000 a year—nearly double what it was a decade ago—and private funds paid for the almost the entire renovation.
“They started with a small, $1 million project because they couldn’t raise big money until the donor community saw that they could build something really nice,” says PJA Principal Pat Janikowski, who did the zoo’s 2004 master plan. “We went from that to a $5 million sea lion exhibit to a $16 million arctic exhibit, and then they did the front entry and then the children’s zoo. So we got everything in but it was a progression.”
Renovating zoos piecemeal, as Buffalo did, is challenging because it takes so long. Parts of the zoo have to be closed while construction is underway, and aging infrastructure like sewer and drainage lines need to be replaced. Raising funds for such projects can be particularly challenging because donors don’t see much in the way of ROI.
“Unfortunately, donors who fund a lot of these kinds of projects don’t want to invest in the basic infrastructure,” says Walsh, of Zoo Advisors. “It’s not very sexy to give money for a sewer line.”
But relocating a huge facility with live animal exhibits has its own set of challenges, not to mention hidden costs. Chief among those is the cost of land acquisition, unless—as BREC is hoping to do—the zoo can swing a deal with a property owner willing to partner. There are also infrastructure costs and the natural inclination to build bigger and better because, after all, why relocate if it’s not going to be spectacular?
That’s ultimately among the reasons why so few zoos end up moving. Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas, is one of the exceptions. In 1993, it relocated to its current 53-acre tract after more than 30 years on a small, 10-acre site near the Waco airport. In the nearly 25 years since, the zoo has grown, adding major new attractions and exhibits every few years—such as the $9.5 million Brazos River Country Exhibit in 2005 and the nearly $4 million Asian Forest exhibit in 2009. In the past decade alone, attendance has increased more than 50%.
Another successful relocation story is the Indianapolis Zoo. In 1988, it moved from the nearly 30-year-old site it had outgrown to White River State Park in the heart of the city. The total cost of the move at the time was $64 million, roughly $135 million in today’s dollars. In the three decades since, the Indianapolis Zoo has continued to grow. New exhibits have been added and more than $70 million has been spent on capital improvements and new exhibits, including an aquarium.
Whether a zoo relocates or renovates, the undertaking is a huge financial commitment, though costs vary widely. The newly completed entryway at Zoo Miami cost around $4.5 million an acre to develop, according to Janikowski, whose firm worked on the project. The elephant exhibit at the Milwaukee Country Zoo, currently under construction, will also cost about $4.5 million per acre.
An African Savannah exhibit, however, can cost as comparatively little as $2 million per acre, provided the zoo has a lot of open space. The grassland exhibits are relatively simple to design and don’t require waterfalls, elevations or other special terrain, Janikowski says.
Aquatic exhibits, on the other hand, are among the most costly, because they involve complex equipment with temperature controls and water filtration systems. They’re also the most expensive to operate. The recently completed Polk Penguin Center at the Detroit Zoo, which houses four different species of 80 penguins in a state-of-the-art facility, cost a whopping $30 million.
The numbers can be intimidating, and it can be difficult for a community to come to a consensus. But not doing anything is almost certainly a kiss of death. Consider the nearly century old Jackson Zoo in Mississippi, which is located in low-income, crime-ridden West Jackson and over the years has seen its attendance decline along with the fortunes of the neighborhood around it.
In 1979, 1993 and, again, in 2013, Jackson considered moving its zoo but each time decided against it because of the prohibitive cost. After the most recent evaluation, consultants recommended a $90 million master plan to renovate the zoo at its existing location. But nothing has happened, and it’s been hard to raise money because big donors are uncertain about the future of West Jackson. In the meantime, annual zoo attendance has dropped from 180,000 in the mid 2000s to around 100,000 today. Government funding has been cut and the zoo has lost its accreditation with the American Zoological Association.
“We could see the writing on the wall because of the cutback of government funding,” says Beth Poff, who’s been the director of the Jackson Zoo for 12 years. “It’s disappointing that we’re stalled and the conversations always come up. But it’s all about where is the energy to raise the money?”
Does the energy to raise money for a zoo—and a newly configured Greenwood Park—exist in Baton Rouge? That’s one of the questions the community will have to answer in the coming weeks. McKnight says she doesn’t want to ask taxpayers to fund the projects. BREC already receives more dedicated property tax dollars than any other agency in the parish— $56.7 million a year—and she vows to raise as much money as possible for a new zoo and regional Greenwood Park from the private sector.
But raising money for a new zoo is only part of the challenge, notes Bill Scheffy, a member of BREC’s finance committee, which serves in an advisory capacity to the commission. Successful, sustainable zoos upgrade existing exhibits or build new ones every five to 10 years.
“If we built a new zoo can we afford it?” Scheffy asks. “There is a hidden cost that no one talks about—the cost of refreshing the exhibits and keeping them current with standards. If you’re going to build a zoo and walk away for 25 years that is not sustainable.”
Baton Rouge also needs to decide how big the zoo needs to be. At 147 acres, the Baton Rouge Zoo at its current location is one of the nation’s larger zoos. The Houston and San Antonio zoos are just 55 and 57 acres each and they’re some of the most successful zoos in the southwest. Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo is 75 acres. The renowned San Diego Zoo, though 100 acres, is still nearly 50% smaller than BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo. A new or newly configured zoo doesn’t necessarily have to be as big as the current zoo at Greenwood Park.
Nor does it necessarily need to have the traditional complement of exotic Asian and African animals. The Western North Carolina Nature Center in Ashville features only native species of the Appalachian region. The Red River Zoo in Fargo, North Dakota focuses on cold weather species.
That approach sounds reasonable on several levels for a zoo in a smaller market. But consultants caution that it doesn’t necessarily make financial sense. Kids want to see elephants and big apes, and kids are the driving factor behind zoo attendance.
“A zoo’s biggest market is families with kids between the ages of 4 and 12,” says Walsh. “Zoos are still really popular with them, despite all the flack you hear about zoos today.”
Perhaps Baton Rouge doesn’t need a zoo at all. With the world-class Audubon Zoo in Uptown New Orleans just 80 miles away, some privately say it’s time to question whether it makes sense to have a zoo at all. But it’s hard to find someone willing to say that publicly and McKnight, for her part, takes issue with that line of questioning.
“You want to educate your community. You want your kids to have conservation education,” she says. “You want your kids to have real experiences, where they’re learning and having fun. They deserve the same level of investment that any other community will do for their children.”
Where does Baton Rouge go from here? In the weeks and months ahead, it will have to grapple with those hard questions. Even if BREC ultimately decides not to move forward with a new zoo location, it will have to come up with a plan for making the existing location more sustainable. There isn’t an easy road map for how to proceed.
“What I have seen having worked with more than 75 zoos in the country is that every community is unique,” says Walsh. “What works in Dallas may not work in Little Rock or Philadelphia or Baton Rouge.”