The head of the East Baton Rouge Parish parks system says she’s tired of being pilloried by those opposed to moving the city’s zoo, although she knows “the public whippings have not ended for me” as BREC moves forward on the project.
BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight’s frustration over the zoo issue bubbled out in recent emails and other correspondence The Advocate obtained in a public records request. In her emails to board members and staff, McKnight laid out her hopes for a tax plan to relocate and rebuild BREC's Baton Rouge Zoo.
In the past, McKnight has eschewed questions about how BREC would pay for the $150 million proposal to build a new zoo and expand Greenwood Park in its place, saying the agency first needed to find a location and to find every possible philanthropic donor and grant.
The board that oversees Baton Rouge's park system has resurrected a proposal to move the Baton Rouge Zoo to the Airline Highway Park near the …
In recent weeks, BREC staffers have moved closer to recommending to their board members that the zoo be relocated to the Airline Highway Park and State Fairgrounds. BREC previously ruled out the site because of extensive flooding there in August 2016, but the agency has since quietly hired consultants to help them determine how they might engineer around future floods.
McKnight wrote in a Jan. 19 email that the tax initiative would need to include: funding for the zoo; funding for the expanded version of Greenwood Park in place of the zoo; walking trails and bike paths throughout the parish; trails and amenities around City Park Lake; development of a DeSoto Nature Park downtown; development of a southeast regional park; and a new and centrally located Sports Academy.
She added that BREC will need to hire the most highly skilled tax advisers it can to help it pursue the tax, and she said she wants to ensure the timing is not too near to any of the agency's tax renewals in 2024.
In her emails, McKnight also expressed frustration with the opposition to moving the zoo. Opponents, including many politicians who represent north Baton Rouge, have accused BREC of a lack of transparency during its planning process. Those complaints resurfaced after BREC board members recently revealed that McKnight had held two-by-two meetings with them to explain that the Airline Highway site was back into consideration. The agency did not tell the public about the Airline site until media started reporting on it.
"Just so you guys know, I am not interested and do not plan to attend any more public meetings outside of the Commission meetings to discuss the location or relocation of the zoo," McKnight wrote in a Jan. 22 email to several of her top staffers.
"The public whippings have not ended for me," she added.
Asked about the emails, spokeswoman Cheryl Michelet said BREC held many public meetings over the summer about the zoo and that the agency will hold more once it starts to master plan. She said a small group of the same opponents to moving the zoo showed up at every meeting in addition to hosting their own, adding that McKnight was not interested in rehashing the same arguments with them.
Parish Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks, one of the most vocal critics of the move, said she’s even more frustrated with the BREC board members than she is with McKnight. She said the commissioners need to hold McKnight accountable, rather than go along with everything she asks. Few commissioners attended public meetings about the zoo move, and Banks said they do not feel the concerns of the public because they are appointed and not elected.
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“They just don’t follow through. They don’t ask common-sense questions; they don’t question any of the decisions,” Banks said. “They just sit there and the response I get is, ‘We’re just taking it all in.’ ”
Michelet said the tax plan is not BREC’s first choice to pay for the zoo. If BREC does pursue a bond issue, it would be “impractical and irresponsible” to ignore other possibilities for projects that BREC could use to serve the public, she said.
Michelet and Reed Richard, BREC’s assistant superintendent for planning and engineering, said the agency already has had some conversations with city-parish officials about the feasibility of its Airline Highway site proposal for the zoo. They said they expect to have more in the future, especially as City Hall recently hired consultants to come up with a stormwater management master plan.
Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has also said she is against moving the zoo out of north Baton Rouge, and she partially campaigned on a platform of helping to revive the northern part of the parish. But Broome also has not directed her staff to try to stop it.
“I have not changed my position on the zoo,” Broome said in a statement. “However, the information they are seeking is public, and I will not direct my staff to obstruct their ability to obtain information related to the proposed site."
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BREC officials had hoped to ask board members this month for their blessing on the Airline site. But Richard said too many unanswered questions remained and that consultants and BREC need more information about sewer capacity and traffic at the site.
BREC officials signed a $10,000 contract in November with Duplantis Design Group to perform "preliminary on-site earthwork and floodplain analysis" of the Airline location. BREC expanded the contract with Duplantis for $17,300 earlier this month to include more research on drainage, flood zones, wetlands and conceptual plans for a zoo at the site.
Their initial plan is to use cutting and filling to prevent a future flood at the zoo site, Richard said. BREC would develop about 80 acres of it and use the remaining land for floodplain mitigation, he said.
Richard also said BREC will soon execute a contract with consultants to perform a traffic study about the location. None of the contracts required approval from BREC’s board of commissioners because they fell under a $50,000 threshold.
Michelet said BREC wanted to be able to answer any questions about the site before presenting it to the commission and the public, which is why the agency did not reveal it was its top contender.
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