As BREC prepares to vote Thursday on moving the Baton Rouge Zoo, the mayors of Baton Rouge, Central, Baker and Zachary complained that the park system's staffers and governing board have ignored their objections. 

The four mayors presented a united front Tuesday as they vented their concerns at a news conference and tour of the zoo’s neighboring amenities at Greenwood Park and around north Baton Rouge and Baker. They said BREC should have taken their concerns about moving the zoo more seriously earlier in a process that has been ongoing for more than a year.

And they questioned why the appointed BREC board of commissioners, whose members will make the call on whether to relocate the zoo, have not more engaged more with the public during a process that has captured the interest of politicians, pastors, parents and park patrons. Few of BREC’s nine commissioners have attended the public meetings and rallies about the zoo relocation.

“Unfortunately, the people who need to be on this bus are those commissioners,” said Central Mayor Jr. Shelton during a Tuesday morning bus tour of the area.

BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight and Zoo Director Phil Frost are expected to make their pitch Thursday to relocate the zoo to BREC’s Airline Highway Park. The park houses the state fairgrounds in the southeastern part of East Baton Rouge near the border of Ascension Parish.

BREC proposes to spend $110 million on the new zoo, and an additional $50 million on an expansion of Greenwood Park in place of the zoo. The agency has not publicly announced funding sources yet, as McKnight said they will lean on donations before they would ask the public for a tax.

McKnight ruled out Airline Highway Park as a zoo location after the August 2016 floods, when the Airline Highway Park was mostly under water, with 10 feet or more in some spots. But she recently brought the location back into contention, and has now identified it as a favorite, after an engineering consultant said they could design a zoo at Airline well enough to withstand future floods.

BREC has spent more than $40,000 on contracts with engineering and consulting firms to come up with drainage plans and to study the traffic impact at the Airline Highway site. The current site where the zoo is located in north Baton Rouge did not flood in 2016.

Opposition to moving the zoo, which was already vocal before a location was announced, has become even stronger and more widespread since the Airline site was revealed as BREC’s target.

A recent closed-door meeting between BREC leadership and Santa Maria homeowners, who live near the proposed site, grew loud and contentious enough that reporters in the hallway could hear the numerous concerns residents listed about floods and the best usage of tax money.

North Baton Rouge political leaders have decried the move all along. State Rep. Barbara West Carpenter, D- Baton Rouge, and State Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, filed bills in the Louisiana Legislature recently that would require the zoo to stay put and that would change the makeup of BREC’s board.

“We would hope that the commissioners would comply, understand, listen to the voices of the leadership and the citizens of the community, and that we would not need legislation to keep the zoo here,” East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said Tuesday at the news conference.

She said it shouldn't be necessary to pass state legislation to prevent the zoo move "but, unfortunately, the leadership of the community feels that it’s necessary.”

The mayors said they were supportive of an alternate plan from the Keep the Zoo at Greenwood Park group to expand both the zoo and Greenwood Park in north Baton Rouge and Baker.

Their idea to is to reorient the zoo and place its entrance on Highway 19, where the entrance is for Greenwood Park, instead of Thomas Road. They want Capital Area Transit System buses to be able to drop off visitors at the site.

They pointed out the many nearby amenities that could help the zoo and Greenwood combination become an “eco-tourism” site. The group envisions tying the zoo and Greenwood into other nearby amenities with lush nature offerings, including BREC’s Cohn Arboretum and BREC’s Blackwater Conservation area. They want horse trails and walking trails to connect through the amenities in the area, and to also make use of the Southern University Ag Center.

Keep My Zoo at Greenwood Park leaders Becky Bond and Mary Manhein pointed Tuesday to the vacant land in the area, sprouting with trees and nature, saying that it’s prime for development of homes, retail and more. LSU graduate students also came up with a plan for keeping the zoo at its current spot.

Though some BREC officials attended the news conference Tuesday, they did not participate in the bus tour. Spokeswoman Cheryl Michelet said the land the Keep My Zoo at Greenwood Park supporters want to build on is land that BREC cannot use because of wetlands and other concerns.

Economic development was a primary concern for Baker Mayor Darnell Waites and Zachary Mayor David Amrhein. Both called the zoo an economic driver for the northern side of the parish. Amrhein said he’s tired of people making use of property tax money from the people of Zachary without investing the community.

He said BREC’s parks in Zachary are not well maintained, while Broome also questioned the fairness of East Baton Rouge taxpayers footing the bill for a zoo facility that would be far more accessible to Ascension Parish residents.

Waites was critical of BREC’s motives for wanting to move the zoo, and asked whether BREC was trying to keep visitors from driving through Scotlandville and Baker, or whether a deal had already been cut. He has been actively campaigning to keep the zoo on the Baker border, as he talks about the plans outside of the zoo with visitors.

“Any time you get all four mayors, the leadership of the local people in East Baton Rouge come together and say they do not want the zoo to move and we still have to plead with you to come and stop it?” Waites said. “Something else is going on here.”

The BREC Commission is expected to vote on whether to relocate at 5 p.m. Thursday at BREC’s headquarters, 6201 Florida Boulevard.


Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.​