Opinion Piece by Kelley Criscoe Stein- The Baton Rouge Zoo: This Mom’s Take on the Potential Move
Like many people, I’ve been following the controversy around the potential move of the Baton Rouge Zoo. As the mom of two boys who love wildlife, nature and science, I’m not in it for the politics. We are members of Friends of the Baton Rouge Zoo, my oldest has attended multiple Zoo Camps and both boys ask constantly to go to the zoo. My husband even purchased a brick in front of the elephant exhibit (now home to two Indian Rhinos) as a gift for his mother, sister and niece. To say that we are highly involved in the zoo and keenly interested in its future is an understatement.
There are many passionate opinions on both sides regarding what is best not only for the zoo, but also for the immediate surrounding community and the City of Baton Rouge as a whole. Many of these opinions focus on the economy of North Baton Rouge. This is a primary point of contention and supports my own personal opinion that the humans of the area should not be sacrificed for the sake of the animals. Learning exactly how the people of the area will be impacted, and acting on their best behalf, remains my greatest concern on the matter.
In an effort to learn more, my husband and I went to the first of six community meetings discussing the potential amenities at both the re-imagined Greenwood Park and the Baton Rouge Zoo if it were to move. The purpose of the meetings is to inform the public on the pros and cons of the potential move, not only for the zoo, but also for Greenwood Park. Other than BREC personnel and media, there were approximately 20 people in the audience. This is a sad public representation for such a heated issue.
The meeting began with a 30 minute viewing of concept plans and “spirit images” depicting what could be. During this time, attendees are invited to fill out cards with questions, vote yes or no to move the zoo, fill out a card to make a public comment, and to vote on your top four desired amenities at the re-imagined Greenwood Park. Unfortunately, the “spirit images” are not available on the BREC website. These do a much better job of showing what they want to do as opposed to the blanket statements of “make a nice park” and “move the zoo.”
The presentation began with Carolyn McKnight, BREC Superintendent. Remarks followed by Phil Frost, Baton Rouge Zoo Director, and Reed Richard, Assistant Superintendent of Planning and Engineering. The trio outlined proposed plans and impact in detail for both Greenwood Park and the potentially relocated Baton Rouge Zoo. Questions were then read and answered from the comment cards, followed by those individuals who opted to make a public statement. In hindsight, both my husband and I wish we had opted to make public statements. I suppose this is now mine.
When the meeting ended, my husband and I spoke briefly with Carolyn McKnight and Phil Frost. Both were very approachable and welcoming. They genuinely wanted to hear our comments, made us feel very comfortable in voicing our opinions and they answered our questions candidly.
I cannot say this loud enough: If you have ANY interest in the location of the zoo, I highly suggest that you attend one of the five remaining meetings to form your own opinion. Here is the schedule:
July 13, 6 p.m. – Highland Road Community Park; 14024 Highland Road Baton Rouge, LA 70810
August 1, 6 p.m. – Central Library; 11260 Joor Road, Baton Rouge, LA 70818 August 3, 6 p.m. – Zachary Library; 1900 Church Street, Zachary, LA 70791
August 8, 6 p.m. – Independence Park Theatre; 7800 Independence Blvd Baton Rouge, LA 70806
August 14, 6 p.m. – Greenwood Waterfront Theater; 13350 Hwy. 19 Baker, LA 70714
A Re-Imagined Greenwood Regional Park
I have to admit, I was skeptical. I heard the talk of repurposing the zoo’s current location but I didn’t “get it” until I saw the plans for myself. As mentioned previously, the website does not show the “spirit images” of the proposed concepts shown at the meetings, which are truly incredible. If this park is re-imagined as envisioned, it is poised to become BREC’s first regional park and will greatly add to the quality of life not only for those living in North Baton Rouge, but for the entire Greater Baton Rouge Area. BREC’s vision for the new regional park is:
A tournament soccer complex with 10+ lighted fields
The region’s largest adventure playground
Obstacle ropes course
Rock climbing wall
A Liberty Lagoon type water park
Expanded picnic areas, pavilions and private event venues
Indoor and outdoor basketball courts
A recreation hall and/or community center
Fishing and kayaking ponds
A performance canopy
Walking / Bike trails
The BREC website states the following:
“Additionally, the development of a tournament soccer complex would draw teams from throughout the region and neighboring states; tournaments like these bring in out-of-town guests, who eat in restaurants near their surrounding facility, stay in nearby hotels and shop for supplies in surrounding stores during what typically becomes a multi-day destination trip.
Destination sports venues and tournaments like these create significant economic impact for the surrounding area, such as the 2014 and 2015 Region II Championship tournaments, which brought visitors from across the southeastern U.S. and generated an estimated $25 million in economic impact; this same type of impact can be generated with a re-imagined Greenwood Regional Park, which is uniquely positioned to serve as a destination venue for these and other types of sporting events.”
As a “soccer mom,” I can attest to the crowds a sports complex like this will bring to the area. This is certain to be the spark of something much more economically impactful for North Baton Rouge than the current zoo. A prime example of this is the Burbank Soccer Complex which has drawn an influx of development to the area.
Don’t forget, this would be in addition to the revenue generated from the other amenities listed. The new park is projected to create 227 jobs and bring an average attendance of 70,000+ and an annual revenue of $790,521 at the water park alone.
It should not go without stating that BREC does its homework. They have conducted multiple studies and surveys to determine what the people who live around the current zoo want. The results from the 2015 survey conducted by Percy and Company are clear: the residents of the area want a multi-functional, sustainable and usable park.
A New Baton Rouge Zoo
Until recently, I didn’t understand what the Baton Rouge Zoo could be. It took a trip to the Memphis Zoo to see what I was missing. We got to pet sting rays, see hippos swim along the walking path in an aquarium style exhibit, let grizzly bears smell our hands, feed giraffes and see more animals up close and in person than ever before. As we left, we were already planning our next trip back. To be honest, we don’t really care for Memphis, but we are going back just for the zoo. This is the type of zoo Baton Rouge could have.
Yes, the Audubon Zoo is only an hour away. I actually went to it for the first time since childhood just recently. After going to the Memphis Zoo, I wasn’t impressed. Sure, there were some interesting animals (sloths!) and the exhibits aren’t as antiquated as the Baton Rouge Zoo, but it is no longer a first rate zoo in my opinion. I found it to be more of a water park with animals than an educational and hands-on zoo facility. Baton Rouge could absolutely build a zoo that would draw people from New Orleans, and if the proposed plans are approved, it will.
Imagine a ropes course next to the monkey exhibits, dining with gorillas, tigers walking overhead, multiple species in one exhibit and hands-on experiences with exotic wildlife. These are all ideas being explored and hopefully will be built in the new zoo. This would be an economy building standing attraction, of which Baton Rouge has very few. Sure, we have lots of great events in Baton Rouge that bring in tourism, but we are low on standing attractions. The zoo could and should be a major one. Again, seeing the “spirit images” is the only way to truly understand how the proposed scope will draw crowds from hours away.
But it all boils down to money, right?
Based on information and studies commissioned by BREC and presented at the meeting, the current operating budget of the zoo is $5.5 million annually, of which 50% is covered by our tax dollars. This leaves us covering the tab for $2.75 million annually.
Assuming BREC is able to pull together the $110 million to renovate the zoo at its current location, they are projecting an operating budget of $7.5 million in 15 years with the same 50% tax subsidy. This leaves taxpayers with an annual tab of $3.75 million.
If the zoo relocates, building a new zoo would cost the same $110 million. BREC administration, however, seems confident that a large portion of the construction costs would be covered by philanthropic donations and corporate sponsorships. Upon opening at the end of the 5 year construction, the operating budget would be $12.5 million with an estimated 25% tax subsidy. This leaves a taxpayer tab of $3.13 million. Upon the end of a 15 year period (the amount of time it would take to renovate the current location), the zoo at a new location has a projected operating budget of $17.6 million at a 20% tax subsidy. This leaves a taxpayer tab of $3.5 million.
At the comparable projected end of renovations to the current zoo, the new location would have an annual operating budget of $10.1 million MORE and cost taxpayers $230,000 annually LESS.
The current annual economic impact of the zoo is $17.1 million. At the 15 year completion of renovations at its current location the increased annual economic impact is $23.9 million. If relocated, the projected annual economic impact upon completion at 5 years is $34.1 million with an annual economic impact at the 15 year mark of $48 million.
If the zoo relocates, upon completion in 5 years, we would see an increase an annual economic impact of $16.4 million. At the 15 year mark, we would see an increase of annual economic impact of $24.1 million more than renovation at its current location with an annual tax savings of $230,000. The new location is also projected to add 264 jobs to the market while a renovated zoo would add 147 jobs.
The bottom line is that in 5 years, we could have a state of the art zoo and pay less annually in taxes down the line, or we will the same zoo in the same location with the same problems but paying more for it.
The Hard Truth
What was most impactful from the presentation were some hard truths:
- The amenities proposed for the re-imagined Greenwood Park can only happen if the Baton Rouge Zoo moves. The plans for a regional park of this scope simply are not feasible in any other North Baton Rouge location.
- The infrastructure of the current zoo does not support a renovated state of the art zoo. This means renovations would be limited to the current facilities and take at least 15 years, while building a new zoo would only take five. The infrastructure will, however, support the plans for a re-imagined Greenwood Park.
- Private funding for the zoo is crucial, whether it moves or not, but it does not appear to exist at the required level to renovate the current location.
Case studies of other zoos across the nation were also presented at the meeting. The close proximity of the Audubon Zoo was addressed by giving examples of many other successful zoos even closer together than the 90 miles between the Baton Rouge Zoo and the Audubon Zoo. The Jackson, MS Zoo was presented as a cautionary tale as it is comparable to the Baton Rouge Zoo in many ways. A handout from the meeting states:
“The Jackson, MS Zoo serves as a cautionary example of what happens when data suggest a zoo should move but it does not and the community instead re-invests at the current location. In this example, annual attendance at the Jackson Zoo dropped from 329,000 to 114,000 over the course of the past 25 years while operating costs continue to rise.”
In looking at the financial implications, the surveys and the proposed plans, it’s hard for me not to get excited. All of my concerns about the potential move have been laid to rest. Greenwood Regional Park would provide what the people in North Baton Rouge have asked for, bring more development to the area and a new zoo will cost less in tax dollars in the long run. Quite honestly, it seems like a no-brainer: Get a fantastic new regional park, get a state of the art zoo, and pay less taxes. This is a win-win-win!
My husband summed it up best: “When I walked in and looked at the boards at the meeting, I thought, ‘that’s a zoo I want to take the boys to this weekend.’ Then, I saw the park they want to turn the current zoo (Greenwood Park) into and thought, ‘maybe I want to take them there this weekend and save the zoo for next weekend.’ Unless the plans move forward I’ll never get the chance to have that dilemma.”
It’s time to get excited about the proposed changes to Greenwood Park and the Baton Rouge Zoo. We can’t wait any longer and here’s why:
If the zoo renovates rather than relocates, my children (ages 3 and 10) will not get to enjoy it because they will be 18 and 25 by the time it is completed. If the zoo relocates, both of my children will still be able to enjoy it AS CHILDREN.
What do you want for your children?
BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight outlines concept plans for a new State of the Art Zoo and a new Greenwood Regional Park.