Seeking to boost attendance at BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo and the impact the zoo has on the region, park system officials are mulling over a $110 million upgrade that could include moving it to a different location.
BREC officials caution that no decisions have been made yet and say they don’t plan on seeking a tax increase to finance whatever long-overdue upgrades are ultimately made at the zoo.
“We are open to possibilities,” BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said.
Friends of the Baton Rouge Zoo, a citizens group that supports the zoo, hired a consulting firm to examine ways the facility could be improved. The consultants made several recommendations, including the possible relocation.
While many of the public officials and community, business and philanthropic leaders interviewed by the consultants said they thought it would be a good idea to move the zoo from its relatively remote location near Baker, others said they thought that was unlikely to happen.
If BREC follows the consulting firm’s recommended timeline, a decision on relocating can be made within six to nine months.
Schultz and Williams, the Philadelphia-based consulting firm chosen to do the study, recommended the zoo carefully consider the opportunity to relocate, though a land donation probably would be the main indicator for whether a move would take place.
“Based on our experience, the cost of building a new zoo on undeveloped land compared to renovating the existing zoo will be very similar — minus the cost of land,” the firm says.
More concerns were raised if the public were made to purchase new land.
Currently, 250,000 visitors on average visit the zoo each year, and it contributes about $17.67 million to the local economy, the consultant’s report says. With the proposed changes, the study says the zoo could raise its average annual attendance to 375,000 and contribute $24 million annually to the local economy, while injecting an initial $330 million into the economy during development.
The zoo has received few updates since its opening in 1970, said Kaki Heiligenthal, head of marketing and development.
“Over the years, there have been some changes, like renovating the front gate, building ‘Realm of the Tiger,’ adding the playground ...but there are actually a fair number of exhibits that look the same as they did opening day,” Heiligenthal said.
Zoo officials want to widen the audience and enhance visitors’ interaction with the animals. The objective is to educate the community, especially on conservation, and bring the zoo back to the forefront of Baton Rouge entertainment.
The consulting firm, which specializes in zoos and aquaria, interviewed 28 people, including community stakeholders, public officials, business leaders and philanthropic leaders. Half said it was possible to raise the funds necessary to make this vision come to life, and more than half of those interviewed said the zoo should consider changing its location.
“I would describe the zoo as stale, old, small and in a bad location,” one person interviewed said. In terms of facilities, more than 50 percent of those interviewed said it was perceived as dated.
The zoo has an operating budget of $5.5 million, half earned and contributed revenue and the other half support from BREC.
The study estimates the zoo could raise $25 million in private funds, though zoo Director Phil Frost said some thought that was an underestimate.
McKnight said there’s no definite plan in place yet for funding the improvements.
“We do know it will take public and private support and possibly other sources,” McKnight said. “We are not proposing at any point in the near future to raise taxes.”
Shultz and Williams recommended the zoo use a public-private business model that has proven successful at the Birmingham, Alabama; Dallas; and Houston zoos. Their approach was to first secure private funds before moving forward with public financial support.
Frost said the consultant’s study “gave us a blueprint for what we needed to do for our continued planning for the next six months.”
The next step in planning, he said, is to put together a steering committee to push the vision forward. He said the committee will be made up of a small group of innovative thinkers.
“We don’t have a list yet, but this is a group of people who are going to be strategic thinkers, people who have been involved in big initiatives,” Frost said.
Later, the zoo will release surveys to get feedback from the public.
“It’s something that’s going to take time,” Frost said.
In addition, the zoo will soon hire an architect to put together visuals for the upgrade.
Frost said an improved zoo improves quality of life in a community.
“A great city has a great zoo,” Frost said.
Follow Danielle Maddox on Twitter, @Dani_Maddox4.