A day after the board that oversees local parks agreed to keep the Baton Rouge Zoo at its longtime north Baton Rouge home, elected officials and BREC board members said they are newly energized about the future of the zoo.
BREC’s Superintendent Carolyn McKnight and Baton Rouge Zoo Director Phil Frost mounted a public campaign over the past year to relocate the zoo to Airline Highway Park in the southeastern part of the parish. But opposition to the move started building from all directions leading up to the vote. Mayors from throughout the parish, north Baton Rouge activists, Santa Maria residents and others lined up to voice their complaints with the proposal.
BREC’s appointed board of commissioners voted unanimously March 22 to keep the zoo at Greenwood Park. And McKnight, who had previously told the board that the zoo's current site was unsustainable, said after the vote that she would work on plans to improve and expand it.
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…
State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, committed Friday to earmark state funds in the future to help rebuild the zoo. Barrow, who opposed relocating it, said she wants to create a task force that would work alongside the BREC commission specifically on plans for the zoo.
She said she’d like to see them come up with phases for zoo improvements.
Barrow has also filed SB 470 in the legislative session, which would change the makeup of the BREC board. She said she still thinks that is necessary despite the vote against moving the zoo.
“The basic maintenance at the zoo has to be much better and we have to hold them accountable for that,” Barrow said. “I have a pie in the sky dream in terms of seeing the area transformed with businesses, with cottages, with natural realms for the animals — not in cages.”
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome was not as strong in her commitment to fund the zoo after the meeting, though she was vocal in opposition to moving the zoo. Asked about providing city funding for the zoo at Greenwood, Broome said she would provide leadership in looking for funding sources.
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BREC Commissioners Mike Walker and Davis Rhorer both said the public testimony on March 22 about the zoo inspired them and gave them ideas for possibilities at Greenwood Park. While Rhorer had voted seven months ago against looking for zoo sites away from Greenwood Park, Walker had voted in favor of looking elsewhere.
But Walker said Friday that the suggestion to move the zoo to Airline left glaring questions. And the strong opposition from Santa Maria residents, who delivered a petition with more than 225 signatures from people who opposed the move, along with opposition from mayors of the parish's cities, were among the factors that helped to sway him.
Barrow noted that many meeting attendees thought the decision to move the zoo was a done deal before the commissioners decided to keep the zoo at Greenwood. She said it showed the power of people getting involved.
“I believe people had really lost faith that their beliefs could make a difference,” Barrow said.
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Walker said he expects the people who asked to keep the zoo at Greenwood to help come up with the funding to make the zoo successful there.
“We obviously can’t jump into a $10 million Liberty Lagoon project right off the bat,” Walker said. “But what does it take to add another soccer field or two out there?”
Rhorer, who approached the debate with the mindset of redeveloping downtown, said he still wants BREC to think big in terms of what the zoo could become. Rhorer is a proponent of working with private developers to build housing and hotels around the area.
BREC Spokeswoman Cheryl Michelet said Friday that BREC will create a master plan and business plan for the zoo at Greenwood, which they will share with donors to help gauge private funding for their ideas. The master plan process will include public meetings and surveys, she said.
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Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks, another opponent of moving the zoo, said Friday that she will continue to press BREC to follow suggestions that the Keep the Zoo at Greenwood Park committee have developed over the past several months. Those include moving the zoo’s entrance to Highway 19, adding horse trails, tying the zoo into the nearby Cohn Arboretum and more.
But Banks also said that the public has lost much trust in BREC during the push to relocate the zoo, and that McKnight and Frost should step down and let new leadership take over.
She vowed work diligently to see that they either resign or are terminated.
"I know that’s the only way things can happen,” Banks said.
The head of the East Baton Rouge Parish parks system says she’s tired of being pilloried by those opposed to moving the city’s zoo, although s…
Walker disagreed. He said McKnight and Frost need support from the community, and that he intends to stand by both.
“She did what she thought was right,” Walker said of McKnight. “And she gave it one hell of a shot. And she didn’t win. She said, ‘OK, I hear what the people want and let’s do it.’ That’s the attitude everyone should have.”