Themed animal exhibits, a new entry complex, community rental spaces and bringing in more animals — including gorillas, elephants and rhinos — are among ambitious upgrades the parish's parks and recreations system unveiled on Saturday for the Baton Rouge Zoo.
The master plans BREC shared with the public also included a separate facelift for the adjoining Greenwood Community Park to better integrate it with the zoo. It also expands on the park's landscape adding more trails, sporting fields and such recreational amenities as ziplines, a mini golf course and outdoor concert venue.
The plans appeared to meet with the approval of both sides of the long-running and contentious debate surrounding the 50-year-old zoo and questions regarding its decline over the years. Some had pushed to move the zoo to a new location in the southern part of the parish, but political leaders and residents in north Baton Rouge fought to keep the zoo at its current location and make improvements to it there.
But all agreed the zoo, which has lost its accreditation, is badly in need of major upgrades and improvements.
"The zoo has had a rough time. It's 50 years old and it looks 50 years old," BREC Superintendent Corey Wilson told the dozens of people who filled the Waterfront Theater at Greenwood Park Saturday morning for the public's first peak at the master plans.
BREC celebrated the reveal of those plans with an outdoor party that drew hundreds who not only saw the future plans for the zoo and park, but were treated to free food and recreational activities.
"This park and zoo will attract people from all over the city-parish," Mayor President Sharon Weston Broome said before Saturday's presentation. "You will be moved by what you see. It's going to be a place (where) everyone wants to come."
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BREC doesn't know yet how much it will cost to implement the multi-phased renovations for both sites, but Wilson announced the parks and recreation system will dip into its surplus funds to pay for the first phase of changes. He said they they hope to break ground on the project next summer.
The first phase, estimated to cost between $25 and $35 million, involves moving the zoo's entrance from Thomas Road to a connection off of La. 19 where a new 30,000-square foot entry complex will be constructed. It will house a gift shop, and space for camps and party rentals.
A new 500-space parking lot to service both the park and zoo will be built along the entry road off Highway 19 in the first phase, along with an orientation plaza that has a splash pad near the zoo's new entrance. Nearby there will be a giraffe feeding station, new pygmy hippo exhibit with underwater views and significant improvements to the J.S. Clark golf course in Greenwood park.
"After 70 years of operating efficiently, we’ve built up a nice (financial) reserve," Wilson said.
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He said BREC has been criticized for that in the past and hopes the public approves of using some of that money to fund the planned improvements.
BREC spent the last couple of years hosting a series of public meetings where planning and engineering firms that drafted the conceptual plans for the park and zoo received community input that Wilson said contributed to renovation designs.
The decline of the Baton Rouge Zoo has been a cloud hanging over BREC, sparking outside criticism and scrutiny from the general public as well as local and state political leaders.
In 2017, former superintendent Carolyn McKnight and zoo Director Phil Frost tried to convince the board that oversees the parks and recreation system to relocate the zoo, claiming it was the only way to ensure its sustainability.
The idea drew sharp public opposition from residents and political leaders of north Baton Rouge who argued that improving the zoo at its current location could spark a much-needed economic revitalization for the surrounding community.
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BREC's Board of Commissioners ultimately decided to keep the zoo where it is. Shortly after, the zoo lost its 40-year accreditation from the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums for antiquated infrastructure and animal attractions.
The accreditation committee also expressed concerns about animal escapes within a 16-month period and several high-profile animal deaths that occurred at the zoo in recent years.
And in 2018, the state Legislature asked the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office to investigate BREC following the zoo relocation debate.
The bill by State Rep. Barbara West Carpenter, a Baton Rouge Democrat, questioned how the zoo had fallen into such disrepair given the millions of dollars BREC receives annually from taxpayers.
Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks joined the chorus of state leaders questioning whether the agency had lost its way with the public. In December 2018, McKnight stepped down as BREC's top leader and Wilson was appointed as the new superintendent in Dec. 2018.
Banks had tears of joy in her eyes on Saturday after seeing the master plans for Greenwood Park and the zoo.
"I am overwhelmed and excited. It’s like a dream," she said. "The leadership change and the culture at BREC now is what we always hoped for and wanted. I will do whatever I can to make this vision come to pass."
Friends of the Baton Rouge Zoo, the nonprofit fundraising arm for the zoo, had supported moving the zoo.
Bill O'Quin, a spokesman for the group, said seeing the plans on Saturday officially killed any argument from them that the zoo needs to be moved in order for it to survive and thrive. He said he also likes that BREC has decided to fully fund the first phase of the renovations.
"I think that will show everyone in Baton Rouge that BREC is serious about having a great zoo," O'Quin said. "I hope that will attract some private donors and more philanthropic gifts to the zoo."
The BREC Foundation, another fundraising support group for the parks and recreation system, expressed support for the plans as well.
Scott Gaudin, president of the BREC Foundation, said the plans will turn the park and zoo into a "first-class destination" and an amenity the parish "will be proud to showcase."
Planners said the zoo's themed exhibits — Africa, Asia, South America and Atchafalaya Swamp — will feel more like an experience by grouping various animals together as they are in the wild. And, they said, some of the exhibits will offer visitors more close-up encounters with animals.
The popular train that chugs through the zoo now will also be upgraded so that it weaves through some of the animal exhibits.
The multitude of animals included in the themed exhibits include alligators, tigers, howler monkeys, a sloth bear, clouded leopard, exotic birds, bats, flamingos, waterfowl, jaguar and a reptile complex,
The zoo will also be bringing in gorillas — which Frost said the zoo has never had before.
On the park side, planners adhered to the public's desire to have a bayou-themed promenade that offers a more fluid connection between it and the zoo. BREC also wants to install flood mitigation measures within the park's redesign.
The changes for Greenwood Community Park had been divided into four phases BREC hopes to complete by 2029.
The zoo upgrades will take more than 20 years to fully implement. Regaining the zoo's AZA accreditation is included in the first phase of upgrades BREC hopes completes by 2022.
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Consultants were gathering some final input on the plans from the public Saturday.
The plans will be presented to BREC's Board of Commissioners on Sept. 18 for adoption. BREC can then start commissioning construction drawings based on the plans.
"It’s so gratifying to see such a visionary plan for 600 acres and road map to start implementing that," Commissioner David Rhorer said Saturday. "I was always convinced this was a great location for the zoo. And I think the citizens of the parish will love it."
Zoo construction schedule
- Phase 1: Entry plaza & regaining AZA Accreditation; Completed by 2022
- Phase 2: Africa; Completed by 2027
- Phase 3: Atchafalaya; Completed by 2032
- Phase 4: Discovery (Kids area); Completed by 2035
- Phase 5: Asia; Completed by 2040
- Phase 6: South America; Completed by 2044
- Phase 7: Reptile Complex; Completed by 2046