Baton Rouge Zoo consultants told the BREC Board of Commissioners on Wednesday the zoo cannot be successful in the future with its current model and presented a plan that includes scouting locations for a new and improved zoo.
Philadelphia-based consultants Schultz & Williams started a feasibility study over the summer on a $110 million upgrade to the zoo. They updated the BREC board Wednesday with some of their most current findings.
Past discussions about relocating the zoo from its out-of-the-way location on Thomas Road in Baker have led to political squabbles between the northern and southern parts of the parish. Some politicians who represent north Baton Rouge, like state Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, and Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel, have already said they will oppose moving the zoo.
“Location needs to be assessed to ensure maximum return to all,” the consultants reiterated in a PowerPoint presentation to the board on Wednesday. The consultants included Rick Biddle and Jill Macauley, of Schultz & Williams, and Jon Stefansson and Jennifer Finley, of CLR Design.
They told the BREC board that a zoo location would need to contain between 75 and 120 acres; the zoo has 140 acres but occupies only part of it. A new site would also need to come through a land donation or a long-term management agreement, they said.
The consultants are spending this month identifying site options, and the zoo’s marketing and development director, Kaki Heiligenthal, said she expects they will reveal those locations to the BREC board in February 2016.
The BREC commission appeared cautious but hopeful after the presentation.
“We want to make sure we don’t do the same thing and expect different results,” BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said. “Our goal is to maybe early next year to talk about some of the places that we reviewed.”
McKnight said BREC recently surveyed the community within three miles of Greenwood Community Park in the Baker area about the zoo and got mixed responses, many of which did not give a reason why the respondent doesn’t visit the zoo.
Davis Rhorer, BREC commissioner and executive director of the Downtown Development District, said the consultants’ presentation made it clear changes need to be made to the zoo.
“I’m curious to see what they come back with,” Rhorer said. “I’m not aware of all the sites they’re looking at. I think BREC is being more responsive to currently what other zoos are doing.”
Rhorer said it’s too early to decide what should be done, though.
BREC Commissioner Evelyn Ware Jackson said she will base her decision on what residents in the community want, mostly by looking at the surveys.
“No matter what we do, we’re going to have to spend a lot of money,” she said.
Years ago, the Baton Rouge Zoo passed up an opportunity for a land donation that fits the criteria of what the consultants are looking for now.
In 2004, developer Ted Hicks offered the zoo 150 acres on O’Neal Lane off Interstate 12. But political turmoil quickly spoiled the deal.
Hicks had planned a development with a high-end outlet mall and other amenities in the same location, but he dropped his option to buy the land once his deal with the zoo went bad.
Developers like Hicks and Mike Wampold, who sits on the steering committee for the zoo’s new vision, have both said the zoo could be more successful in a more accessible and frequently-trafficked area.
In an August interview, Hicks said that still means a location off I-12, a corridor that travelers pass on road trips between California and Florida. Wampold has suggested looking at options like land on River Road and south of L’Auberge Casino and Hotel.
McKnight, the BREC superintendent, has already made it clear that if the zoo changes locations, Baker would not be left with more than a hundred acres of vacant land. She said part of the deal of moving the zoo would mean replacing it with something the people who live closest would still enjoy, like another version of the Liberty Lagoon Water Park or zip lines.
Regardless of whether the zoo moves, the consultants said other aspects of how it operates need to change.
“Status quo is not an option,” they said.
Schultz & Williams recommended more interactive exhibits for the zoo, saying rather than visitors simply looking at animals, they need new ways to engage with them. They also suggested adding more educational programs.
Zoo Director Phil Frost has previously said he would be interested in adding ropes courses near primate exhibits, and building facilities that people could rent for events like weddings, proms, concerts and educational conferences.
How the zoo could pay for such improvements is also still up in the air.
The consultants have said the zoo needs to explore public/private partnerships, and the initial feasibility study predicts the zoo could raise $25 million in private money. The zoo’s operating budget is $5.5 million a year, with half of the money being earned and the other half coming from a BREC subsidy.
Frost and McKnight have said it’s likely the public will have to pitch in to pay for some of the changes. They said they will explore private funding, state money and grants before asking for a tax or other public funding.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Dec. 17, 2015, to remove an incorrect line that said developer Ted Hicks died last month.