The Baton Rouge Zoo will not move to Airline Highway Park, after a tide of opposition that had strengthened in recent weeks led the board that oversees local parks Thursday to rethink the relocation proposal.
BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight and Zoo Director Phil Frost asked their board members Thursday to agree to move to the zoo from its longtime home at Greenwood Park in north Baton Rouge to the park in the southeastern part of the parish.
Political leaders in the northern part of the parish lamented losing one of its few assets, while a number of residents in south Baton Rouge complained the relocation could aggravate traffic congestion and reawaken flooding concerns.
The board of commissioners cast a unanimous vote to keep the zoo at Greenwood Park after a nearly four-hour meeting Thursday. The number of people who spoke in opposition at the meeting far outnumbered those in support. Their concerns ranged from environmental to emotional.
“To me, growing up in north Baton Rouge, the zoo was like a pillar of the community,” said Tanya Jones. “The vision you have for the zoo is very beautiful. But why move it?”
McKnight and her staff painted the proposal as a do-or-die scenario to turn the Baton Rouge Zoo into a dynamic visitor experience, saying the zoo could die if it stayed at Greenwood. They said keeping the zoo at Greenwood Park would prevent it from growing to its full potential, and would also discourage potential donors who might otherwise invest in creating a more compelling attraction.
And they played up the potential of adding new amenities, like a water park, zip lines and horse trails to Greenwood Park in place of the zoo. After the vote, McKnight said BREC will pursue a new plan to improve both the zoo and Greenwood Park.
The few people who spoke in favor of moving the zoo asked the BREC commissioners to think about the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, which sits near some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. They reiterated the “location, location, location” mantra and urged the commissioners not to be afraid of making a major change.
“I’m so disappointed that this is so controversial,” said Denise Clause, who said she liked the idea of having both a new zoo at Airline and a new water park at Greenwood. “It’s exciting. We have an opportunity here.”
But the vast majority of speakers said they could not understand why BREC was hellbent on moving the zoo when they could make the zoo bigger and better in its current location. BREC has repeatedly said it would take 15 years to rebuild the zoo at its current spot versus five years in a new location. And the agency said Greenwood Park was unsustainable for the future of the zoo.
“Why can’t we have overnight camps here?” asked Myron Peters, who spoke in opposition to the move. “Why can’t we have a restaurant here? Why can’t we have a big beautiful sign and an entrance on Highway 19? Why?”
The mudslinging and torrents of outcry leading up to the vote left commissioners unconvinced that they should move the zoo to the state fairgrounds. It was a rare example of the appointed BREC commissioners, who usually agree to whatever McKnight asks of them, bucking her recommendation.
Commissioners Lloyd Benson and Davis Rhorer both said it made them proud to see such a unifying moment for the people of Baton Rouge and that they had not seen such a high level of interest in the zoo before.
As the zoo debate intensified over the past few weeks, McKnight and commissioners came under fire as well. Hours before the vote on Thursday, secret audio recordings of McKnight discussing the zoo proposal with her staff leaked to politicians and the media.
Critics of the move — including all four mayors in Baton Rouge, Central, Baker and Zachary — questioned why the commissioners were not publicly engaged during the process.
East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, who often tries to avoid controversy, took an unusually strong stance on the proposed zoo move. She directly placed blame on BREC’s leadership Thursday for mismanagement of the zoo, and called the zoo a “victim of the status quo.”
Central Mayor Jr. Shelton and Baker Mayor Darnell Waites made similar comments, and several state legislators and Metro Council members spoke in opposition as well. State Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, said the zoo debate had been unifying because of the amount of opposition. The only division he saw was between BREC leadership and the public, he said.
Other opponents to moving the zoo hammered BREC with mentions of the park’s flooding in 2016 and its history as a waste dump site in the 1970s. The debate also triggered the filing of two bills in the legislative session: one that would force the zoo to stay at Greenwood and another that would change the makeup of the BREC board.
The project was expected to cost $150 million. BREC estimated it needed $110 million for the zoo relocation, and an additional $40 million to expand Greenwood Park in its place.
The price tag was another major concern. A number of speakers said they would flat-out refuse to pay a new tax for a new zoo in a new location.
Many residents of the Santa Maria neighborhood near the Airline Highway Park also put forth a united front, delivering a petition to the board with more than 225 signatures from their neighbors who opposed the move.
“It is a very positive thing going on here in that no one is saying we don’t want a zoo,” said Jim Shreve, a Santa Maria resident. “Maybe the very positive thing that comes out of this is that we want a better zoo.”
In interviews after the meeting, both McKnight and Broome agreed with that sentiment. Despite McKnight’s hard push for changing the location, she said after the vote that she has heard the will of the people and a willingness to support the zoo at Greenwood that she had never heard before.
“If this is what it took to get us to this point, I’m grateful,” McKnight said. “One of the great things I heard tonight that I really needed to hear was that this community wants a zoo.”
Broome said after the meeting that the real work starts now. Asked if she would commit to spend city-parish funds on an improved zoo at Greenwood, she said she would be a leader in finding sources to “uplift and enhance” the zoo.