Days before East Baton Rouge Parish parks commissioners vote on whether to move the Baton Rouge Zoo, four local mayors are demanding the destination stay where it is.
BREC officials plan to vote Thursday on relocating the zoo. It currently sits adjacent to Greenwood Park, along the border of north Baton Rouge and Baker. The mayors of both cities argued, in a joint news conference Tuesday, that moving the zoo would strip an economic driver from the northern part of the parish.
“It is a huge mistake for you to move that zoo,” said Mayor Darnell Waites of Baker.
“We need to concentrate on trying to grow all over our parish, not just in areas that are already flourishing,” East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said. “We must acknowledge the devastating impact it would have on north Baton Rouge if this zoo were relocated.”
BREC’s nine-member board is considering a move to the southeastern part of the parish, namely to Airline Highway Park. The site is home to the state fairgrounds and is near East Baton Rouge’s border with Ascension Parish. BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight and zoo director Phil Frost have argued that the area would attract more visitors and revenue.
“Why would we vacate the northern part of the parish, when the southern part has plenty of economic drivers already?” said Central Mayor Junior Shelton.
Shelton said the zoo is the only place of its kind in the northern part, luring visitors to restaurants, hotels and shops in Central, Zachary and Baker.
“When you go to the zoo, you don’t go to the zoo just for an hour or so,” Shelton said. “You go to the zoo for a day, and you don’t spend it just in that zoo.”
BREC officials estimate that relocating the zoo would cost $110 million. The agency is also proposing a $50 million project to renovate Greenwood Park, in place of the zoo. Those funds would come primarily from donations, commissioners said, adding they would ask the public before using additional taxpayer money.
All four mayors in the parish said they would rather see BREC use that money toward the current zoo. Members of the “Keep the Zoo at Greenwood Park” group recommend opening an entrance on Highway 19, rather than Thomas Road. They also support placing CATS bus stops along the stretch.
“If you want to dress it up, take that money you would spend on relocating it, and put it here,” said Mayor David Amrheim of Zachary. “With the money they’d use to move it, it makes no sense.”
“You take that money and put it in this current zoo, and you’re going to have a showcase,” Shelton said.
Broome said the zoo’s problem is not location, but management and marketing. The mayor would like more signs and advertisements to guide potential visitors across East Baton Rouge Parish. She also wants BREC officials to utilize the vacant land that surrounds the present zoo.
“I can’t answer why there hasn’t been the investment needed in this area for the zoo, but I would certainly implore the commissioners to look at the asset we have right here,” Broome said.
Broome said investing in a zoo along Airline Highway Park would be a gamble. She questioned the site’s drainage capabilities, after up to 10 feet of water submerged the area in August 2016.
“All we have to do is look at the fact that our current zoo did not flood,” she said.
BREC has spent roughly $40,000 examining how such a move would impact traffic and drainage along Airline Highway.