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What to do about the Baton Rouge Zoo? Stephanie Riegel July 5, Business BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight, citing a study, said the only way to attract the donors necessary to fund much-needed upgrades and improvements is to move the zoo to a yet-to-be-determined south Baton Rouge location. The future of the aging zoo has become a flashpoint in a community that is steeped these days in polarizing issues.

Some have tried to make the zoo debate about race and economic disparity. What do north Baton Rouge residents want for the sprawling acre Greenwood Park? What location for a zoo would draw the biggest crowds?

How much would well-heeled donors be willing to give to build this new attraction? The questions are not easy to answer and Baton Rouge is not alone in asking them. Communities around the country are also dealing with the issue, asking themselves what to do with their aging zoos, how much money to pump into them, and whether it makes more sense to relocate, renovate, scale down or, perhaps, even close altogether. | The Advocate | Baton Rouge News, Sports and Entertainment

You hear that talk from time to time, but it is expensive to do that. It comes down to a dollar question. A question of location? Click to enlarge At its June 22 meeting , the BREC commission heard from dozens of public speakers, who weighed in one side of the zoo debate or the other. One thing they all agreed on is this: Something has to be done with the zoo.

Zoo management is overlooking a bunch of simple things they could do. To an extent, BREC concedes, this is true.

Because it would be easier to raise philanthropic dollars, attract more visitors, generate more revenues and could be completed in shorter time frame—as opposed to a decade or more to renovate the existing facility. Moving may make more sense, but where to is far from clear. I just spoke to one of the legislators a few days ago and suggested an area.

But the Harveston site remains a possibility. Mike Wampold , who is developing Harveston and owns adjacent property that could be the site of the new zoo, says he might be willing to partner with BREC and donate a portion of his land for the zoo, but only if adjacent landowners are also willing to put up property. She prefers a site farther north, away from the river, and along the heavily travelled Interstates 10 or A smarter move would be to go off of the Central Thruway, which has a lot of land that could be manipulated and would be abundant at a very reasonable price.

Attendance at the now year-old facility was down. In , a consulting firm recommended relocating the zoo to a new bigger location. Troubled by the price tag and certain it would be unable to raise that much money, the zoo went in a different direction, hiring Seattle-based consultants PJA to do a master plan for the zoo at its existing location.

It ultimately took 12 years to complete, two years longer than budgeted. But today, all the original elements of the master plan have been implemented, attendance is averaging around , a year—nearly double what it was a decade ago—and private funds paid for the almost the entire renovation. So we got everything in but it was a progression. Parts of the zoo have to be closed while construction is underway, and aging infrastructure like sewer and drainage lines need to be replaced. Courtesy Buffalo Zoo But relocating a huge facility with live animal exhibits has its own set of challenges, not to mention hidden costs.

Chief among those is the cost of land acquisition, unless—as BREC is hoping to do—the zoo can swing a deal with a property owner willing to partner.

Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas, is one of the exceptions. Another successful relocation story is the Indianapolis Zoo. In , it moved from the nearly year-old site it had outgrown to White River State Park in the heart of the city. In the three decades since, the Indianapolis Zoo has continued to grow.

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Whether a zoo relocates or renovates, the undertaking is a huge financial commitment, though costs vary widely. Aquatic exhibits, on the other hand, are among the most costly, because they involve complex equipment with temperature controls and water filtration systems. The numbers can be intimidating, and it can be difficult for a community to come to a consensus.

But not doing anything is almost certainly a kiss of death. Consider the nearly century old Jackson Zoo in Mississippi, which is located in low-income, crime-ridden West Jackson and over the years has seen its attendance decline along with the fortunes of the neighborhood around it.

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In , and, again, in , Jackson considered moving its zoo but each time decided against it because of the prohibitive cost. In the meantime, annual zoo attendance has dropped from , in the mid s to around , today.

Government funding has been cut and the zoo has lost its accreditation with the American Zoological Association. Successful, sustainable zoos upgrade existing exhibits or build new ones every five to 10 years.

Nor does it necessarily need to have the traditional complement of exotic Asian and African animals. That approach sounds reasonable on several levels for a zoo in a smaller market. Kids want to see elephants and big apes, and kids are the driving factor behind zoo attendance.

They deserve the same level of investment that any other community will do for their children. In the weeks and months ahead, it will have to grapple with those hard questions. Even if BREC ultimately decides not to move forward with a new zoo location, it will have to come up with a plan for making the existing location more sustainable.