The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is bracing for a fight over a possible move of the Baton Rouge Zoo out of north Baton Rouge.
Baton Rouge NAACP leaders sent a letter to the Recreation and Park Commission on Tuesday saying they would vigorously challenge any campaign to relocate the zoo. This will be the second major clash between BREC and the NAACP in the past several months after the NAACP opposed the demolition of the Gus Young Park swimming pool last summer
BREC is proposing a massive rebuilding of the Baton Rouge Zoo that could cost upward of $100 million — $20 million more than the recent south end zone expansion of LSU’s Tiger Stadium.
Baton Rouge Zoo Director Phil Frost has said a steering committee and consultants are still weighing whether the zoo should stay in its current location or move to one of eight or so other locations that have been scouted.
“BREC has cited a lack of financial resources for virtually every request that has been made for improvement of facilities in the African American community,” wrote NAACP general counsel Alfreda Tillman Bester. “Imagine our confusion when the lack of resources has not even been raised in a meaningful way in your discussions of the relocation of the BREC Zoo.”
Frost and BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said they want to raise some money privately, but they know they will need public financing to afford the “zoo of the future” that they envision. They say they need a better idea of what the improvements would look like and how much they cost before they determine whether a tax will be needed and how much BREC would need to seek from the public.
Frost has also said the cost of rebuilding the zoo likely would not vary much regardless of whether the zoo is relocated. He said 90 to 95 percent of the zoo’s architecture needs to be replaced.
BREC cited a lack of money and resources to keep the north Baton Rouge Gus Young Park pool open during outcry over its demolition. Political and NAACP leaders said the historic pool was critical for giving black and often poor children a place where they could learn how to swim and pass the time when they were out of school.
BREC said the pool had fallen into disrepair and that they could not afford $400,000 to build a new one. Additionally, BREC said the bigger problem was paying $90,000 a year for pool maintenance and lifeguards.
The opposition and BREC eventually compromised and formed a public-private partnership in hopes of finding private donors to help build a new pool. Still, Bester said at the time that BREC should have been willing to pay for the pool.
The conversation about rebuilding and relocating the Baton Rouge Zoo was prompted by a study from Philadelphia-based consultants Schultz and Williams. They were hired by Friends of the Baton Rouge Zoo, the zoo’s private foundation.
The NAACP said it is a disturbing trend that public agencies use private foundations to pay for studies.
“It is clear to us that this is fast becoming the new and preferred methodology utilized by wealthy few for the sole purpose of controlling and redirecting public tax dollars for the benefit of the majority community and the most affluent,” Bester’s letter reads.
A survey BREC commissioned from Baton Rouge market research firm Percy and Co. found that the people who live within 3 miles of the zoo are not its regular visitors. Furthermore, many of the 327 people surveyed said they would be interested in an expansion of Greenwood Park, which is next to the zoo.
McKnight has promised to put something in the place of the zoo in north Baton Rouge that residents would want should the zoo change locations.
“With the great majority of households in this area visiting the zoo infrequently, rarely or never, we would not anticipate a strong or ‘organized opposition’ to relocation of the zoo based on the data presented herein,” reads the survey.