Master planners hoping to help Baton Rouge regain accreditation for its five-decade-old zoo unveiled sweeping changes for the 103-acre complex and an adjacent park Thursday, calling the work to be done a “re-invention” rather than a renovation.
The Baton Rouge Recreation and Parks Department intends to transform the outdated zoo and the adjacent Greenwood Community Park into a cornerstone of culture, entertainment and animal education. Public and private money, perhaps into the millions of dollars, will fund the multi-phased overhaul paid.
“The re-invention concentrates on addressing the zoo’s accreditation issues,” said Ace Torre of Torre Design Consortium, the New-Orleans based firm handling the master plan concepts for the zoo.
The proposed ideas prepared ahead of public meetings Thursday include upgrades to Greenwood Park, including plans to shutter the larger of two golf courses at the site.
BREC Superintendent Corey Wilson said the golf courses don’t generate enough annual revenue to sustain themselves, making them a financial burden. They’ve cost the parks system more than $3.6 million over the past six years.
"This basically goes back to a study we did in 2014 looking at golf operations throughout the parish," Wilson said. "We've basically concluded there are more holes than there are players to play on the courses, pointing us to the decision we should re-purpose one of them."
Re-purposing would mean folding the shuttered golf course into the planned upgrades for Greenwood Park.
The plans were mostly well-received by attendees who shared concerns about cost, how much taxpayers would have to foot the bill for the ambitious ideas and how long would it take to see the plans come to fruition.
“I’m very excited about everything; we’re hoping this will really revitalize the area,” said Charles Vincent, a councilman for the city of Baker who lives near Greenwood Park. “Once we get the buy-in from the community, I think we’ll start to see a real boom.”
Thursday's meetings are the second round BREC has hosted regarding the park system's zealous attempt to revamp the park and nearly 50-year-old zoo.
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The first round of meetings took place in January in which the two consulting firms spearheading the preliminary design plans for the projects received public input that influenced the plans that were revealed Thursday.
Consultants said nearly 700 residents completed surveys pinpointing desired amenities and programs. Several touched on themes of wanting the projects to "change the perception of North Baton Rouge," highlighting nature and animal habitats, and adding walking trails, playground areas, water trails and aerial sports options at Greenwood Park.
Torre said the public has asked for more state-of-the-art animal exhibits and community spaces that could serve as the perfect backdrop for weddings and social events.
Renovation of the zoo is critical if the facility is to regain its accreditation status from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which dinged the Baton Rouge Zoo for its antiquated infrastructure and outdated animal attractions.
A series of animal escapes and several high-profile animal deaths has also hurt the zoo's public image as of late.
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An overwhelming number of people felt the park and zoo should be better connected and the zoo's entrance moved from Thomas Road and integrated within Greenwood Park, he said.
"People had special requests for certain animal exhibits," Torre said. "And we've put together a really great entry experience in these preliminary plans where you'll come off Highway 19 and move through the rest of the park before you come to the entry of the zoo."
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The zoo rehabilitation will likely roll out in phases, with the first set to roll out by spring 2022 and include revamping the zoo’s entryway and addressing all the issues cited by the AZA accreditation board.
BREC is prepared to allocate half of the money it will take to implement the first phase, which Wilson estimated at around $20 million. Wilson said the parks system will look to federal funding and the philanthropic community to make up the difference.
Private investors will play an integral role in financing the other phases in the preliminary plans, which Torre Design Consortium has proposed implementation of in 2027 and 2032.
The conceptual design for the zoo centers around a loop system that folds some existing features, like the popular train, into the new layout while expanding on current exhibits and proposing a few new ones.
Besides entry upgrades, Torre touted a “huge” Africa exhibit that will give visitors the feel of being on a safari, an expanded Atchafalaya Swamp exhibit he called a “powerhouse” feature, South America and Asia themed exhibits as well as reptile complex and orientation plaza.
A food court, carousel, splash pads, gift shop and mixed-use spaces were other amenities included in the proposed plans for the zoo.
Sasaki Associates, the master planners for Greenwood Park, will show the public three themed options for the park's revamp. One of which emphasizes culture, another in which recreational amenities take center stage and a third with a heavier focus on nature.
The public can mix and match features from each design to combine into the final design proposals that will be unveiled later this year.
BREC has posted an online survey where people can preview the preliminary plans and offer feedback.
The final plans for both projects will be an integral focus of the fundraising campaign that pay for the changes.
As for golf, all three Greenwood Park proposals involve shutting down the 18-hole course at Dumas Memorial and leaving the 9-hole course at J.S. Clark open for play.
Wilson said BREC has to subsidize both golf courses to the tune of $600,000 a year due to poor use.
BREC closed the golf course at Howell Park in 2015 for the same reason.
Dumas, a 200-acre course, only has 12,000 rounds of play last year, he said. A course typically sees about 30,000 rounds of play a year. Dumas is also the most expensive to maintain, according to Wilson.
"We don't have a problem subsidizing stuff that has a community benefit," Wilson said. "Golf is a private benefit so (public dollars) really shouldn't be paying anything that's not a benefit to the entire community."
The Dumas golf course was named after former Mayor-President Woody Dumas, also a former Baker councilman, who's credited with spearheading the effort to build the course. If and when the course closes, Wilson said BREC plans to name something else within the park in honor of Dumas.
As for the other course, the three preliminary plans for Greenwood Park include options for a 9-hole golf course with various amenities, depending on themed model. Those various amenities include driving ranges, a 18-hole mini golf course and/or 9-hole disc golf.
"While this part of the plan, until we get money to do the things that could potentially replace Dumas, it’s just a plan," Wilson said. "I don't want people to think we're closing (Dumas) tomorrow. We'll continue to play golf there until we have the money to move forward."