Metro Buzz: Baton Rouge zoo critic tries to derail BREC award _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- The entrance to BREC's Baton Rouge Zoo on Thomas Road in north Baton Rouge, photographed Thursday, August 20, 2015.

As Baton Rouge Zoo leaders have started to open up over the past year about a potential rebuilding campaign, one question has been paramount for residents and community leaders: Will the zoo move?

Zoo and Recreation and Parks Commission officials will be one step closer to providing an answer on Thursday, when potential future sites for the zoo’s animals and activities will be revealed. Philadelphia-based consultants from Schultz & Williams will give a presentation at 5 p.m. Thursday at BREC headquarters, where the locations they have scouted as finalists will finally become known.

Previous presentations about rebuilding the zoo have emphasized that massive changes and possibly more than $100 million will be needed to change for a “zoo of the future” to become reality. BREC and zoo leaders have said they still are unsure whether they will try to rebuild the zoo at its current location on Thomas Road, or if they will try to find a new home for it.

Zoo Director Phil Frost said the zoo had looked at around eight locations in January. Even if the zoo stays in its spot near Baker, Frost predicted that 90 to 95 percent of its architecture will need to be replaced.

The zoo’s ZIP code tracking and neighborhood surveys show that the majority of the zoo’s usual visitors are not its nearest neighbors. Instead, families travel to visit the animals from south Baton Rouge, Denham Springs, Zachary and northwest Ascension Parish.

But a vocal group of north Baton Rouge residents and community leaders have rallied around keeping the zoo where it is. They have blamed the zoo’s leadership for not doing enough to bring people to its location near Baker.

More than 100 attendees at a north Baton Rouge forum last month confronted Frost and BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight with a show of hands saying they wanted to zoo to stay. Many said they had not been asked for their opinions about moving the zoo despite being north Baton Rouge residents.

Baton Rouge National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leaders also vowed to oppose any campaigns to relocate the zoo. A Facebook page called “Keep My Zoo Where It Is” has encouraged people to flood McKnight’s inbox with letters that ask for improvements at the current zoo, rather than a new location.

McKnight and Frost have countered by saying no decisions have been made yet about whether to relocate the zoo.

They also cited a survey they commissioned in November of 327 people who live within a three-mile radius of Greenwood Community Park, which is next to the zoo.

The survey from market researchers Percy and Company said just 3 percent of those living around the zoo said they visited it monthly, and a quarter of the heads of households said they visit several times a year.

But 39 percent of the people who were surveyed said they visit other BREC parks multiple times a month.

McKnight has promised that if the zoo changes locations, BREC will build something that nearby neighbors would get more use of in its place. She said they might consider building something along the lines of another Liberty Lagoon water park, one of BREC’s crown jewels.

Doing so could ratchet up the cost of the total zoo renovation, which also has not been finalized. Frost and McKnight said if the zoo moves, they would factor the cost of building something in its place into a fundraising campaign. They expect the renovations will require a combination of public and private financing, but they said they are waiting on a better cost estimate before they specify whether they will ask for a tax.

The BREC commission will only receive a report on Thursday that outlines possible locations and other ideas for improvements to the zoo. They will not vote on making any of the recommended changes until further down the line.

The commission also will consider on Thursday holding a tax election Nov. 8 to renew one of its many property taxes.