The chances of the Baton Rouge Zoo remaining at its 47-year-old home in north Baton Rouge dropped significantly Thursday evening when the board overseeing recreation and parks in the parish voted to pursue a plan to find new sites for relocating the zoo and to expand Greenwood Park in its place.
The vote came after an impassioned, two-hour debate at BREC's headquarters echoing similar disagreements that sparked across the parish over the past few months. Despite an intense opposition campaign, commissioners on Thursday cast a vote that opens the door for BREC to scout and negotiate a deal for land for a new zoo site — though some insisted it was "not a vote to move the zoo" and that such a vote will come down the line.
Thursday's vote, however, does grant BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight the authority to scout "the best potential alternative location" for the Baton Rouge Zoo, including authority to negotiate a land deal and come up with a funding plan. Rebuilding the zoo is estimated to cost $110 million, while adding flashy, new amenities to Greenwood Park is projected to cost another $40 million.
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Though one of the most common refrains among those attending Thursday's meeting was the idea that BREC should renovate the zoo in its current location along with renovating Greenwood Park, McKnight gave the commissioners an ultimatum at one point and took that idea off the table.
She said she would not bring them a proposal for a water park and other amenities at the zoo's north Baton Rouge site because it would be irresponsible to disrupt wildlife on the hundreds of unused acres near the zoo. She also said it would be irresponsible to sink so much money into an unsustainable location.
"If you say no, everything stops," McKnight said, drawing jeers from the audience. "Tonight."
Most members of the BREC board, a public entity, did not explain their rationale for their vote during the meeting. The two who spoke up during the debate were Davis Rhorer and Rossie Washington.
Rhorer spoke of his decades championing downtown development, despite pockets of the community having given up on downtown in the same way some have given up on north Baton Rouge. He said he wants to see the zoo revitalized at Greenwood Park, which was a common request among the dozens of speakers at the meeting. Rhorer disagreed with the idea that Thursday's vote was not a vote to move the zoo, emphasizing after the meeting that it was a vote to "look elsewhere."
Washington came up with the phrase "best potential alternative" location for the zoo that commissioners voted on rather than the original wording of "best new location for the Baton Rouge Zoo." As he amended it, audience members yelled out that it was the same thing. He also changed the resolution to ask for public input from the entire parish about potential changes to Greenwood Park, rather than the original wording that encouraged public input from Greenwood's surrounding community in Baker.
Washington also spoke of his ties to north Baton Rouge, and said it has been heartbreaking to hear from consultants that philanthropists do not want to invest there. He asked opponents to moving the zoo to work on finding people willing to invest in north Baton Rouge.
Washington then voted in favor of pursuing the plan to look for new zoo sites. Joining him were Mike Walker, Kenneth Pointer, Larry Selders, David Tatman and Sandra Davis. Lloyd Benson and Rhorer were the "no" votes. Walker and Selders both said after the meeting they saw the vote as simply a means of gaining more information about possibilities for the zoo and Greenwood.
Audience members who urged the BREC commissioners to vote "yes" insisted that the zoo is struggling in its current location, that a location easier for visitors to access would benefit both taxpayers and tourists, and that expansions to Greenwood Park would be preferable to most people rather than having the zoo there.
Zoo move opponents, on the other hand, questioned why BREC would yank its premier attraction out of north Baton Rouge while the rest of the community is recognizing the need to invest in the neglected side of town. They blamed the zoo's declining attendance figures on the facility being out of date, saying the state-of-the-art version BREC has proposed building elsewhere could also attract more visitors in north Baton Rouge.
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"To vote against the resolution tonight would be somewhat similar to forbidding your daughter to get married before she's ever gone out on a date with anyone," said Joe Simmons, prompting laughter from the crowd.
But other people were more skeptical, with Mary Manhein — a fervent opponent of moving the zoo — accusing BREC of intentionally trying to mislead the public and the commissioners about what the vote meant. She and others spoke of the benefits of the current location on Thomas Road and said it is unfair that it is no longer even being considered.
"We love the zoo and we love our proximity to the zoo and we don't want it to move," said Kimberly Powers, a Central resident, as she stood before the commission with her two young daughters. "I don't have a lot of professional titles to put to my name, but I'm a mom. We are 7.9 miles away from the zoo and it is a blessing."
The Rev. Dale Flowers of New Sunlight Baptist Church said he was watching a live stream of the debate online and could not stay away because he felt compelled to tell the commission why the zoo should stay where it is. He and a number of other pastors spoke of disinvestment in north Baton Rouge.
Pat McCallister-LeDuff, of Scotlandville, wondered what would happen if BREC could not find enough suitable land elsewhere for the zoo. She said BREC needs a good plan B should a new location for the zoo not be available along the Interstate 10 and Interstate 12 corridors, like McKnight has proposed.
"All over the city we are talking about where is land, where is land?" McCallister-LeDuff said. "And it leads you north every time."
Others, though, were wooed by the possibilities at Greenwood. Kelley Stein attended the meeting with her young son, and said they are frequent zoo visitors but thought the plans for Greenwood are arguably even more exciting than the zoo plans. She agreed that the zoo needs to move.
"While the proposed cost would be the same to renovate rather than move, the end product would not be an apples to apples comparison," Stein said.
BREC staff will still have to return to the BREC commission in the future to win approval for a new site for the zoo, the plans for Greenwood and the funding strategy for the projects.
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