The Baton Rouge Zoo might have the same giraffes roaming and macaws squawking five years from now, but the animals’ surroundings could look different regardless of whether a controversial location change happens.
If the zoo stays on Thomas Road near Baker, between 90 to 95 percent of the zoo’s architecture needs to be replaced for the proposed, interactive “zoo of the future” that the recreation and parks commission is imagining, said zoo Director Phil Frost.
That kind of rebuilding would require public buy-in. A recent study concluded an expansive revamp of the existing zoo would be as expensive as moving the zoo across town and starting from scratch.
Though zoo officials have not released the handful of locations they are seriously scouting if they do opt to move, they have tested the waters and are gathering data to bolster their case. For example, a survey of people who live within three miles of the zoo found that the vast majority aren’t regular visitors.
“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 from Baton Rouge market research firm Percy and Company.
ZIP code studies also show the zoo’s most frequent guests are not the ones who live closest to it. Instead, the young families most often visiting the lemurs and alligators are from south Baton Rouge, Denham Springs, Zachary and northwest Ascension Parish, according to zoo officials.
Still, the politicians representing north Baton Rouge are not blasé about a possible move.
“Could it be that people don’t want to see some of the things that they see on the way to the zoo? Could it be the blight? Maybe,” said longtime state legislator Sharon Weston Broome, who represented north Baton Rouge and is now running for mayor. “But let’s address the blight. Let’s address the zoo. And let the zoo grow and develop on the ample acreage that it has there.”
Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel has hammered BREC on her Facebook page, saying nobody will be motivated to go to north Baton Rouge for a zoo replacement like a water park, one idea that has been floated as an alternative.
Banks-Daniel said the lack of recent improvements to the zoo do not give the people of her district a reason to support it.
“Poor management and a systematic plan to let the zoo die of a ‘slow death’ to support a campaign to move the zoo is at the root of this plot,” she said in an email.
Whether it’s in the current tree-lined location or somewhere else, zoo officials say a lot of elements need to change.
Zoo officials won’t commit to a price tag just yet, but early studies suggested building a new zoo could cost $110 million, excluding the cost of buying land. The proposal to move the zoo is predicated on the land being donated.
Frost acknowledged that there is no way to rebuild or move the zoo without additional public money but said it’s premature to say there would need to be a dedicated tax and what that would look like. He said the determination will come once officials have a better sense of how much the improvements will cost.
“I don’t think there’s any question that there’s going to be a need for some mix of public and private [funding] … unless we get really lucky and someone decides to write us a large check,” Frost said.
The money would go toward adding extras to make the zoo appealing to broader demographics than just young children. Frost envisions train rides, ropes courses, carousels, splash pads and more. He wants facilities to host retreats, wedding receptions, dances and even overnight guests.
And if the zoo stays where it is, he wants to add another entrance from Highway 19.
“We’re currently pretty much a 9 to 5 zoo,” Frost said. “We need to make that a 7 to 10 zoo.”
One way to offset some of the cost would be to build attractions that bring in revenue, Frost said.
Another likely change could come at the prices to attend the zoo. Admission prices at the Baton Rouge Zoo are among the lowest in the state. It currently costs $8.75 for adults and $5.75 for children.
At Lafayette’s “Zoosiana,” adults pay $11.99, and children pay $7.99.
And at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, admission is $19.95 for adults and $14.95 for children.
Frost said he wants to institute dynamic pricing at the Baton Rouge Zoo, where prices vary depending on the time of year people visit and the activities they choose.
Those visiting at peak times would pay more than people stopping by on a random weekday morning. Families who want to ride a train around the zoo or cool off under a splash pad would pay more than those who strictly are there to look at the animals.
In addition to evaluating the current location’s ability to host the changes they want to make, Frost said officials have looked at around eight other locations. The finalists will be revealed next month.
With each, the zoo’s steering committee is weighing pros and cons based on proximity to frequent visitors, proximity to major thoroughfares, acreage size, floodplains and more. If the pros for moving outweigh the pros of staying, BREC will try to pitch the location change as an opportunity for the community in north Baton Rouge to get something they would use more often than the zoo.
“Emotions are real, and they won’t be ignored,” said BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight. “And so we will definitely have to make sure that we continue to talk about it and see what the will of the community is.”
Market researchers Percy and Company conducted the survey in November of people who lived within a three-mile radius of Greenwood Community Park, which is next to the zoo. Only 3 percent of the 327 people surveyed said they visited the zoo monthly, while just about a quarter of these “heads of household” say their families attend several times a year. In comparison, 39 percent said they visit other BREC parks multiple times a month.
Respondents said they would be interested in an expansion of Greenwood Park that would include playgrounds, water parks, trails and more.
When asked why they don’t visit the zoo more often, most respondents could not articulate a specific reason. One hundred respondents said they were unsure what the zoo could do to become a more attractive place to visit.
Others suggested adding more animals. Frost has said adding animals is not easy because the zoo is constantly adjusting to accreditation requirements for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The survey concluded that the north Baton Rouge community would support BREC’s additions to Greenwood Park in place of the zoo.
But even if the public does not buy into a location change, Frost and McKnight are hoping they will support a new version of the zoo if it stays where it is. They said the 46-year-old one is struggling, only earning half of its yearly $5.5 million budget with the other half coming from BREC. The infrastructure and funding sources are not sustainable, McKnight and Frost said.
“It’s just not working, it’s not enough, and we know this,” McKnight said.
Editor’s note: This article was changed on Jan. 23, 2016, to reflect that the zoo is located near Baker, but is not within the city limits of Baker.