The Baton Rouge recreation and parks agency has joined dozens of developers across the city-parish on the hunt for the same holy grail: land that's accessible, expansive, inexpensive, high and dry.
It will not be easy.
Developers and real estate experts say Baton Rouge already has problems with being jam-packed along the Interstate 10 and Interstate 12 corridors where BREC is most interested in finding a new location for the Baton Rouge Zoo.
Searching for around 100 acres of land is one of the most difficult undertakings BREC staffers have in front of them now that their board has authorized Superintendent Carolyn McKnight the ability to scout "the best potential alternative location" for the Baton Rouge Zoo.
McKnight also was given power to negotiate an agreement on the land, but she has said she'd prefer a donation, land swap or long-term management lease.
"We need to be in the highest, most visible location in the parish," McKnight said in an interview after her proposal to pursue the zoo relocation and Greenwood Park expansion won commission approval on Thursday.
The vote followed two hours of arguments and pleas from members of the public about the future of the Baton Rouge Zoo. Some strongly support a move; others vehemently oppose it.
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BREC has already tested the waters of looking for land.
McKnight and Zoo Director Phil Frost looked at several locations with consultants before making a 2016 presentation to BREC commissioners that pinpointed the Airline Highway Park and Nicholson corridor near Bluebonnet Boulevard and Burbank Drive as possibilities.
The Airline Highway site, home of the Greater Baton Rouge State Fair, was ruled out after it flooded last year. And BREC is now going back on the hunt.
"Since Baton Rouge development took off in the mid-1990s, all of the large development tracts have been absorbed by residential subdivisions or large commercial developments," said commercial realtor Beau Box. "We have a lack of large development tracts in East Baton Rouge parish; we have a lack of continuous acreage for development."
Box said he's not aware of any sites with the acreage BREC wants along Interstate 10 or Interstate 12 that are "vacant, accessible and available."
Developers Ed Kramer and Prescott Bailey had similar thoughts.
Kramer recalled the many previous discussions about relocating the Baton Rouge Zoo — once along Burbank Drive between LSU and Bluebonnet and then again in 2004 when there was talk of moving it to O'Neal Lane off I-12.
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BREC may look for land in the Pecue Lane/Highland Road area, given that an I-10 interchange for Pecue Lane will start construction soon, Kramer said.
Sites near L'Auberge may present problems, he said, because he has seen a preference from casinos to not be located near competing attractions when he has tried to develop near them.
Bailey and Box both mentioned the Nicholson Drive and River Road corridors as possible places to find land, though they do not have the Interstate proximity BREC has indicated it desires.
"From a developer's standpoint, we're all out there looking for property and it's not easy to find," Bailey said. "The larger tracts are becoming fewer and far between. There's not that much left anymore that are high and dry."
Bailey and Box also questioned the likelihood of BREC securing a land donation, though Bailey said the agency might consider a partnership with LSU. The university owns land along Nicholson and Ben Hur Road, and both BREC and the zoo could benefit from a relationship with each other, he said.
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Developers, on the other hand, would need a large enough tract of land to know they could afford to donate some to BREC and still be able to benefit from the land left over, Bailey said.
BREC is not the only public agency searching for land in Baton Rouge.
The East Baton Rouge Library system has had a difficult time finding available land after spending the past several years trying to find a location for a south branch library. Though the library system has identified possibilities, library administrators have yet to sign the paperwork on any official spot despite years of attempts.
The current zoo on Thomas Road in north Baton Rouge occupies 125 acres, but is surrounded by several hundred more acres, some of which has been developed into Greenwood Park and other portions of which are considered wetlands. The zoo may downsize, as one criteria for a new site is that it exceeds 75 acres.
Opponents of moving the zoo have pointed to the lack of flooding at and around the zoo last year as one reason why it should stay put. Multiple speakers at the Aug. 24 meeting asked how BREC could pursue a relocation plan without having a site for the zoo in mind. BREC countered that the Aug. 24 vote was not officially a vote to move the zoo, but rather a vote to explore possible locations where it could go and the cost of moving it.
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Box and Kramer both said the zoo's current site does not fit with Baton Rouge's growth patterns, and that they would expect it to be more successful with a more accessible location along the Interstate and closer to the parish's population center.
BREC Commissioner Rossie Washington asked Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks on Thursday — a staunch opponent of the zoo move — to work with private donors and see if they might be interested in investing at the zoo's current site.
Banks said Friday that BREC did not do its own due diligence on determining what kind of donations might be available and that she is trying to get clarification on what BREC will do now.
McKnight released a timeline Friday for the next 18 months. She expects to ask BREC commissioners to sign off on approval for a new site by Feb. 2018. Determining the site is the immediate priority, and once a location has been chosen, BREC would devise a funding strategy and come up with master plans for the zoo and Greenwood Park by Dec. 2018.