A recent study has revived an off-and-on again debate in Baton Rouge about where the Baton Rouge Zoo’s animals should slither, swim and scamper.
The study by a Philadelphia-based consultant found that many residents want to relocate the zoo as part of a massive overhaul. Some local leaders say it makes sense to move the zoo to a more accessible location but wonder if political obstacles can be overcome.
Among the suggestions for the zoo’s location that have been pitched past and present are: off Interstate 12, off Interstate 10, in the central heart of the city, near L’Auberge Casino and Hotel on the south side of the city, in an area closer to LSU and on land near LSU’s Rural Life Museum.
BREC and zoo officials say they are not ready to scout for a new home just yet. Before they can look at locations, they need to know what they want out of a massive zoo overhaul and how much space the multimillion-dollar project would take.
Still, developers, politicians and others are not shying away from the conversation about where they believe zebras should roam and spectacled bears should bathe. Baton Rouge has had these discussions before, with some turning into a tug-of-war between the northern and southern parts of the parish.
In the end, the zoo has always remained at its now 45-year-old home in north Baton Rouge on Thomas Road.
Philadelphia-based Schultz and Williams conducted the study that found many people believe the location of BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo is out of the way and inconvenient. Another finding was that the zoo is often mistakenly called the Baker Zoo because it sprawls toward Baker’s city line.
As zoo and BREC officials turn their gaze on rebuilding and rebranding a “uniquely Baton Rouge” zoo, where it goes is the biggest point of controversy and backlash that they face.
“As a personal belief, I think that location to a more accessible area would be more beneficial for the zoo,” said developer Mike Wampold, who also sits on the BREC Foundation’s board of directors and who is part of a committee looking at the zoo’s future. “I don’t know in the cost/benefit ratio if it’s worth it.”
He pointed to land by LSU’s Rural Life Center, land south of L’Auberge and land on River Road as possible good locations for the zoo.
“If you have people that understand economics and understand business that have a voice in relocating it, I think that it’ll get relocated,” said developer Ted Hicks, who tried to move the zoo more than a decade ago. “But if the politicians get involved and they use it as a political football, economics doesn’t matter.”
North vs. south
For Hicks, the conversation about the zoo’s location carries a sense of déjà vu.
In 2004, Hicks planned a development on O’Neal Lane off Interstate 12. He offered to donate 150 acres of land to BREC for the zoo. The zoo currently has more than 140 acres of space, but it only occupies part of it.
It looked like there was interest in the move at first, Hicks said. But the conversation quickly became political and the deal soured.
“The public officials at that end of the parish felt it would give them a political problem moving the zoo out of the northern end because it was taking business away from north Baton Rouge and putting business in south Baton Rouge,” Hicks said in a recent interview.
Hicks dropped his option to buy the land — where he also wanted to build a high-end outlet mall and other amenities — and said he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.
He stopped investing in East Baton Rouge Parish after the loss. He said he still believes the zoo could be more successful in a location like the one he offered, given that I-12 is a tourist corridor for road trips from California to Florida.
But some politicians who represent areas near the zoo are already digging in their heels.
State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, and Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel both said the zoo should stay where it is.
“Why would you remove the zoo other than the fact that somebody wants to use it for leverage for something else in south Baton Rouge?” said Broome, who is running for mayor.
Banks-Daniel said the zoo’s problems stem from a lack of innovation rather than a problem with location.
“I have never heard of one person say they would support the zoo being relocated,” Banks-Daniel said in an email.
State Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, was slightly more open to a change, saying the zoo needs something to make it better. If the decision is made to move the zoo, Honoré said it should go to an area in the central part of the parish.
Broome worried that moving the zoo from north Baton Rouge would give that part of the city another negative, while south Baton Rouge would gain another positive.
BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said leaders and residents of north Baton Rouge should not worry that losing the zoo would mean losing one of their best assets. McKnight said BREC would collect input from residents about what could replace the zoo, should it move.
Possibilities for replacing it could range from another Liberty Lagoon-style water park to ball fields or zip lines, McKnight said.
Along with raising the money for the zoo renovation - which the study pinned at arouond $110 million, though the zoon does not have a funding goal yet - the money would also have to be raised for the zoo's replacement at its current location.
“Whether it is a zoo, or whether it is something else, we will not leave them empty-handed,” McKnight said of the northern part of the parish. “We will not.”
Asked if the people of her district might prefer something else in place of the zoo, Banks-Daniel responded: “That’s out of the question.”
A different zoo
Zoo Director Phil Frost said talk of relocation will not be more conclusive until zoo officials and committees know more about what they want in a future zoo.
“We’re writing a book, and we’re just now starting Chapter Two,” he said.
Frost said research shows that successful zoos in today’s environment need to be interactive. He wants the zoo to capture the flavor of Baton Rouge, with exhibits that are specific to the area.
Some of his ideas include “destination lodging,” like luxurious safari-style tents where people could spend the night. He’s also interested in adding ropes courses near primate exhibits, and building more facilities for events like weddings, proms, concerts, educational conferences and more.
Frost said adding more animals could present a challenge. He said the zoo will ask the public what they want to see and would have to work with other zoos across the country to try to bring in new animals.
The consultants concluded that paying for all of the changes will probably cost similar figures if the zoo stays in its current location or if it moves, aside from the cost of the land.
Regardless of where the zoo goes, Frost and McKnight said, the public will have to help pay for the changes. The zoo will first try to raise the private money for it, and then look for capital outlay money, grant money and turn to the public.
It is possible that residents will be asked to vote on a new tax to help pay for the zoo’s renovations, though it’s unclear what kind of tax.
“Whatever it is, we know that it needs to be temporary and not permanent,” McKnight said.
Past talks about moving the zoo have included connections between the Baton Rouge Zoo and the New Orleans Audubon Nature Institute. Hicks had proposed Audubon have involvement at Baton Rouge’s zoo. Audubon surfaced again several years ago as the possible operator of a riverfront development Mayor-President Kip Holden proposed that was to be called “Alive.”
Holden did not return interview requests.
Frost said discussion of possible connections to Audubon has come from people outside the zoo, not within it. He said the Baton Rouge Zoo has no need for an affiliation with Audubon.
“There definitely is not a need for it any more than we need to get Louis Armstrong to come up and run our airport or Tulane to run LSU,” Frost said.
Audubon echoed that it is not part of the current conversation about the future of the Baton Rouge Zoo.
“Conversations between Audubon Nature Institute and the Baton Rouge Zoo took place before Hurricane Katrina and no further discussions have been held since then,” reads a statement from the Audubon Nature Institute. “Audubon supports our friends at the Baton Rouge Zoo as they explore options for future success.”