One could easily assume the debate about the zoo is simply about the best location for it to be successful. That’s what the consultants researched, and I believe a new location southward would win the debate on those terms. But I feel it has become about far more than site location. For some it appears to be about winning the turf battle and sending a message—and BREC’s zoo is the trophy.
The three most important things in real estate are “location, location, location.” I was told the first zoo we had in Baton Rouge consisted of about 10 animals at City Park, which also had a baseball stadium, a carousel and a pool. The people passed a millage for a zoo in 1965, the year Woody Dumas became mayor. Dumas had previously been the mayor of Baker—right where the zoo was built starting in 1966. It was moved from the city north to Baker. Coincidence? I wonder if any of the south Baton Rouge folks whined and complained? I guess Woody won the trophy then.
But a lot of things were different in 1966. North Baton Rouge was economically strong, and Sherwood Forest was at the edge of south Baton Rouge. Many of the car dealers at that time were on Scenic Highway or Florida Boulevard in north Baton Rouge. Notice how they moved to Florida and then down Airline Highway to Siegen and then even to Denham Springs and Gonzales? They followed the growth, the population and the money. I suspect that some of these businesses, much like restaurants or retail, had a consultant help them find the right location and study the demographics, household incomes and traffic. That is what BREC was doing with its Philadelphia consultant, which The Advocate reports has worked with 15 zoos. But opponents of BREC’s proposal are attacking the messenger and the study, including Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks, who called it “foundationally inaccurate.” (And exactly what are her credentials in research methodology, site selection, or zoos period?)
Mayor Sharon Weston Broome decided to join this debate and wrote a letter to the BREC Commission in support of the zoo “remaining in its current location in North Baton Rouge.” She states she is certain they “can accomplish what is needed without relocating the facility.” Really? Can she add interstate access?
“This ‘zoo battle’ has gotten personal for some. It is about drawing a line in the sand and flexing political muscle and public pressure to face down south Baton Rouge and hang on to turf and the “trophy” Woody Dumas won 50 years ago for the North.”
But let’s all admit this issue is no longer about the most viable site to build a zoo that might increase traffic from growth areas and other parishes and attract more fee-paying customers. Nor is it about whether the zoo can be an “economic development” tool for north Baton Rouge. No business is going to locate in north Baton Rouge just to cash in on zoo traffic. It certainly hasn’t happened in the last 47 years. And our new zoo would still be in competition with Audubon’s very special zoo on 58 acres in New Orleans, which has 2,000 animals. (The Baton Rouge Zoo says it has 1,800 animals. Having been to both, I can tell you there is far greater difference than 200 animals.)
This “zoo battle”” has gotten personal for some. It is about drawing a line in the sand and flexing political muscle and public pressure to face down south Baton Rouge and hang on to turf and the “trophy” Woody Dumas won 50 years ago for the North.
Mayor Broome, in her letter to BREC, said, “North Baton Rouge should be the focus of investment rather than disinvestment” and added, “Moving the zoo or any other main attraction out of North Baton Rouge would be taking a step backwards.” There you see it—North vs. South. But running the zoo properly would involve millions in tax dollars and more resources. It must be sustainable, not just a trophy on the shelf that tarnishes over time. That’s what we have now.
Mayor Broome did get an “Amen” from Zachary Mayor David Amrhein and City Council members. The Advocate reported, “The council unanimously approved a resolution opposing the possible move.” Amrhein said, “The No. 1 user of the Baton Rouge Zoo is ZIP code 70791, which happens to be the city of Zachary. I’m tired of the north end of the parish being overlooked.” (The complaining gets old.)
The zoo’s ZIP code studies show those who live near the zoo are not even frequent visitors; ironically, the “Baton Rouge Zoo” has its No. 1 fans and users in Zachary, Louisiana, north of the site. (Maybe Zachary wants to take over the zoo as they did with their schools.)
These calls for spending $110 million rebuilding the zoo where it is remind me of the $409 million John James Audubon Bridge that was built at St. Francisville instead of a bridge south of Baton Rouge. Political muscle got it done. Big mistake. When opened in 2011, it was projected to have 4,000 vehicles a day, and it is at only about 3,500. So sad. What would the traffic be for one built south?
So how do we avoid making that mistake?
As for the Audubon Bridge, we shouldn’t have built it. And maybe that’s the answer for a new zoo. Don’t build one. Tax dollars are going to be harder to come by in the future, and we have many needs. BREC will not have $110 million, and donors may not step up. Time.com recently published a story, “The Future of Zoos: Challenges Force Zoos to Change in Big Ways.” There are tough questions, multiple challenges for the zoos of the future—and the answers are expensive. Can we afford a “real” zoo? I know we can’t afford a $110 million mistake.
Maybe we shouldn’t look back at what we’ve always had, but toward what we might create—something new for the future for amusement and entertainment and quality of life. Is a new zoo the answer? If so, we must know that locals in EBR alone can’t and won’t sustain such a venture. (Notice where Bass Pro and Cabela’s located—on the interstate where regional visitors and tourists could access them.) With public tax funds surely to get tighter in the future, we have to make sound business decisions—based on facts and reality—and not react to political posturing or parochial interests.
I appreciate Carolyn McKnight and BREC undertaking the exercise with these consultants to explore a new zoo at various locations, and I feel their study and recommendation are sound and logical. But like that bridge, $110 million is way too much for a “new trophy” just to please politicians in a turf war—especially to have it fail, handing taxpayers the tab. Taking no action is better than taking the wrong step.
Our “leaders” better come up with some positive ideas and answers soon because this battle over the zoo is getting ugly and divisive. This issue is less about the zoo and more about the repeating pattern in our community of North vs. South and black vs. white—and that should be our greatest concern after the year we just lived through.
Mama Marino tribute
Grace “Mama” Marino, 94, passed away recently after more than 50 years as the matron of Gino’s iconic restaurant and the Baton Rouge culinary community. To many, she embodied the American dream, becoming a small business owner and restaurateur just eight years after moving to Baton Rouge with her husband and three young children from their native Agrigento, Sicily.
She was the first recipient and namesake of the Baton Rouge Epicurean Society Grace “Mama” Marino Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into both the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s Hall of Fame and the Baton Rouge Business Hall of Fame. Mama Marino’s legacy in our community is a large one, and she will be missed by all.