Consultants said in a report delivered Thursday that BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo needs to move from its location in north Baton Rouge as part of a proposed $110 million rebuilding campaign.
Leaders at the Baton Rouge Zoo have been studying a potential campaign to create the “zoo of the future” but previously maintained they had not decided if another site would be preferable to the zoo’s wooded home on Thomas Road. Thursday marked the first time Philadelphia-based consultants Schultz & Williams gave a definitive answer that the zoo should move.
The potential locations are BREC’s Airline Highway Park — more than 130 acres in the far southeastern portion of the parish near Blue Bayou Water Park — and the “Nicholson corridor zone” of undeveloped land along La. 30 and Bluebonnet Boulevard, near L’Auberge Casino and Hotel.
East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission members received the news hesitantly, with none immediately saying they were ready to move the zoo. Many said they want to take their time making the decision because it will have long-lasting ramifications. There is no timeline on when a decision must be made.
“I would certainly like it to stay,” BREC board member Rossie Washington Jr. said after the meeting.
North Baton Rouge residents have decried the lack of business and investment in their neighborhoods, especially after losing hospitals and emergency rooms over the past few years. Many have pointed to the zoo as one of the few bright spots and tourist attractions in their community.
Although the zoo’s ZIP code studies show its most frequent visitors are not the people who live closest to it, many north Baton Rouge residents have told BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight and zoo Director Phil Frost they want the zoo to stay.
Rick Biddle, vice president of Schultz & Williams, said keeping the zoo in its current spot will not yield as good a return on a $110 million investment as moving it to a new spot. He said many potential donors are reluctant to invest in the north Baton Rouge site, and rebuilding the zoo at its current location would require more public dollars, without as many private donors who would step forward to finance it.
Washington said he understands why donors and businesses might be hesitant about the current location, but he wants to work with them and figure out how to improve the zoo where it is.
Three people who worked on the zoo’s steering committee or private foundation spoke in favor of the report before it was presented, asking the commissioners to hear the recommendations and take the necessary action to revive the zoo and make it first class.
East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker was the only person who spoke critically of the proposal during the meeting. She told the board that no matter what, north Baton Rouge cannot be left without resources and activities for the people there.
“Do I believe it’s a terrible thing if the zoo would have to move from north Baton Rouge?” Wicker asked. “Of course I do.”
But Wicker added that she has seen plans for what could potentially replace the zoo in its current site if it does relocate, and she said many of those plans are exciting. McKnight has promised that if the zoo moves, BREC would replace it with something its neighbors would use and enjoy more often.
Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel has criticized BREC’s suggestion of possibly building a water park in place of the zoo, and she has called on local leaders and pastors to oppose moving it. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also has vowed to fight any attempts to relocate the zoo.
Kathy Michael, who lives near the zoo, has started a social media campaign called “Keep My Zoo Where It Is.” Michael has been posting photos and videos of people enjoying the zoo and discussing why they like its location.
Mayor-President Kip Holden said he has not taken a stance on whether the zoo should move and said his only opinion is that cooler heads should prevail.
“We do not want it to divide the parish into north and south,” said BREC member Mike Walker. He said he’s especially interested in the zoo’s ability to make more money after rebuilding. “The more earned revenue we get, the less taxpayer money we have to use,” he said.
Both of the potential future sites have the opportunity to almost double the number of visitors, according to the consultant’s report. Attendance in the current location has been flat at about 250,000 visitors annually.
A new, interactive zoo might draw 375,000 visitors a year at the zoo’s current location, Riddle said. But they project it would take 15 years to rebuild the zoo at Greenwood Park, whereas it would take five years to build a new one in a new location.
Riddle said zoo visitation could jump to 500,000 people a year in one of the new sites, the result of locating the zoo closer to growing populations, major tourist routes and strategic partners.
Both sites are near Ascension Parish. The zoo’s ZIP code data show its most frequent visitors are from Ascension, Denham Springs, south Baton Rouge and Zachary.
“These sites are both projected to have long-term success at a significantly greater level than our current site,” Frost said in a statement. “That all being said, no decisions have been made yet on whether we will move, much less where, so if there are individuals out there who know of other pieces of land that fit this criteria and should be part of our discussion, we would certainly encourage them to share those with us.”
BREC staff will now take the consultants’ suggestions and create a final recommendation to the board of commissioners. Consultants recommend that BREC update a feasibility study about the rebuilding campaign for the zoo by including the possible future sites.
The consultants also have advised BREC to hire a marketing and public relations firm to spread information about the changes, and they have said BREC should host town hall meetings for more community input.
“Now that this chapter is complete, we will continue moving at a deliberate pace in reaching out to the community as a whole for their input, as well as working internally to determine our next steps and how to make our zoo the best one it can be for the entire region,” McKnight said in a statement.