Baker Mayor Darnell Waites stood in front of BREC's Baton Rouge Zoo last week looking for inspiration and answers that might help keep the attraction in a position to impact his small, but growing community.
What he found at the gates went against narratives used to spur talk of moving the zoo — a young family who traveled from neighboring Livingston Parish to enjoy an afternoon at the zoo.
"Hello, I’m the mayor of Baker, and it’s nice talking to you,” Waites said introducing himself to Denham Springs residents Kahn and Molly Petite. “We have this thing going on about moving the zoo, and I’m against it.”
Waites held a miniforum on the sidewalk, looking to gleam understanding that might throw a lifeline to the zoo that has been a fixture in the northern end of East Baton Rouge for 48 years. Kahn Petite said they enjoy the zoo but are sorry the elephants exhibit is gone. He also said his family would like to see more animals and some renovations to the existing structures.
The encounter brought encouragement to Waites and seemed to signal that he wasn’t alone in his thinking.
“You guys drove this far and, like you said, if they make a couple of changes, we got a top-notch zoo,” Waites said.
The mayor returned to his office just a couple of miles away wishing that the monumental zoo debate was just that simple. It isn’t.
The Baton Rouge Zoo is located on the border of Baton Rouge and the small town of Baker. It is owned and operated by the Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission, and, at its height, was home to more 800 animals from around the world.
BREC would like to develop a world-class zoo and has explained that this can only be done in another location. After a few years of study and input, BREC is studying the idea of moving the zoo southward to an Airline Highway park near the Ascension Parish line.
BREC estimates it would take $110 million for a new and improved zoo and an additional $40 million to expand Greenwood Park, the site adjacent to the current zoo.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Waites said of putting that much money into an area that has experienced significant flooding.
“They are talking about moving it then you have to build the infrastructure around it and make it a destination spot, he said. “It’s going to generate revenue for everything in that area. Why can’t you just do that here?”
Zoo move opponents echo Waites. They feel an economy-sparking destination can be created whiling saving millions of dollars from the $150 million plan. Waites added that revenue could be poured back into the area and a robust marketing effort should be dedicated to draw tourists to the improved zoo.
“It can be a great destination place and my city benefits the most,” he said. “When those signs off the interstate bring people this destination place, it will bring them to Baker.”
Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks and the Keep the Zoo at Greenwood Park group met with Zachary residents on March 8 at the library. They encouraged residents to put pressure on BREC and its commissioners ahead of a March 22 meeting where a vote on the future of the zoo is expected.
They presented alternative plans to improve the zoo in its current location, and to turn the combination of the zoo and Greenwood Park into an “ecotourism” site with trails, kayaking and other options for nature lovers.
Zachary Councilman Tommy Womack, who serves on the city's Economic Development Council, spoke of the community and development ties between the Baton Rouge Zoo and the city of Zachary. He also said Zachary has high property taxes and if BREC’s plan continues additional tax burdens might be needed.
Baker City Councilman and former Mayor Pete Heine gave an animated plea for support as he spoke of the history of the Baton Rouge Zoo.
Heine, who was instrumental in the placement of the zoo 46 years ago, also said it’s unfair that Baton Rouge taxpayers support the zoo, but residents of Ascension Parish would have greater access without paying BREC taxes.
Waites said after years of support, both Baker and neighboring Zachary can benefit if the marketing efforts are done right and new tourism dollars are attracted.
From an economic development standpoint, Waites sees very few current options for business and family-friendly activities.
“The only other options that we have been given over the last 50 years are industry on the backside over there and when you want to build a dump, you put it in north Baton Rouge,” he said. “The zoo is the exception. It took a lot of people to get it here and for more than 40 years, it has not been a problem.”
Alternative plans have been hinted, but Waites would also like to propose annexing the area into the city of Baker if BREC moves the zoo from its location. Baker is faced with yet another “David-and-Goliath” struggle and Waites is rallying the troops behind a battle cry of unity.
“We keep fighting and we succeed with unity,” he said. “Business unity, education unity, faith-based unity — I spend a lot of time bringing them together.”
Baker does stand with the chief executives across the parish. Waites points out that all four mayors in East Baton Rouge Parish — Baton Rouge, Central, Baker, and Zachary — support keeping the zoo at its current location.
Zachary Mayor David Amhrein says his city is a strong support system for the zoo, but the support is not always returned.
“The zoo needs to stay where it is, in my opinion,” he said. “I’m sure there are people who are going to disagree and I’m fine with that.”
“At one time, the 70791 ZIP code was the biggest users of the zoo and that’s Zachary,” Amhrein said. “People who use it the most shouldn’t be penalized to have to drive on the other side of Baton Rouge to get to it.”
Zachary’s mayor is skeptical of the logic behind putting a zoo at a site that was “under water.”
“Everybody wants Zachary’s money because we are an affluent community, but when it comes to giving back, they just don’t have a lot of give back,” Amhrein said. “It just seems like the north end up here gets the shaft on everything from BREC.”
Amhrein admits to having one very nice BREC community park, but he feels the others are lacking, especially considering the town’s tax investment. The youth park has become a tournament destination in the region that profits more than a $1 million a year in usage fees in addition to supporting hotels and restaurants with overnight tourism dollars.
The growing destination draw of Zachary could be marketed and packaged with an improved zoo, Amhrein said. Tournament attendees often have two- or three-hour gaps between games and are looking for something to do in addition to playing ball in Zachary.
“We had 41 baseball teams here this past weekend and eight high school teams,” Amhrein said. “The youth are looking for something to do. If we made the zoo a world-class zoo like it should be, the money is there.”