BREC defends relocation efforts one day before controversial vote on BR Zoo

BREC defends relocation efforts one day before controversial vote on BR Zoo
BREC Baton Rouge Zoo (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - BREC released a statement Wednesday morning refuting claims made by area mayors about the relocation efforts of the Baton Rouge Zoo.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome was joined by the mayor of Baker, Zachary, and Central for a news conference and press tour of the zoo on Tuesday morning.

The local mayors oppose BREC's proposal to move the Baton Rouge Zoo from its current location at Greenwood Community Park in Central to the state fairgrounds on Airline Highway.

The BREC commission is scheduled to vote on the matter on Thursday. None of the BREC commissioners attended the news conference at the zoo on Tuesday.

The statement released Wednesday claims that the mayors made "several incorrect statements" about the proposal.

See the full statement and supporting documents below:

Yesterday’s news conference held at Greenwood Community Park regarding BREC’s proposal for a more visible and sustainable location for the Baton Rouge Zoo included several incorrect statements made by speakers that BREC would like to correct. From the outset of this discussion, we have relied on data and facts to support our position that two new innovative spaces will benefit the entire Parish though improved quality of life, economic impact, an increase in visitors and thus parish-wide economic impact and a decrease in reliance on tax dollars. Some of the incorrect statements made at this news conference include the following.

Airline Highway was under water in 2016 and redeveloping it puts the animals, Zoo and nearby homes and businesses at risk in the future. While a portion of Airline Highway Park did flood, many portions of the site are currently above the FEMA base flood elevation and did not flood. BREC is working with reputable engineers who know this area well to devise a plan that will not only protect the site itself from potential flooding but the area surrounding it as well. We take our responsibility as stewards of taxpayer dollars seriously and would never construct a facility that would put people or animals at risk. (See attached flood mitigation document.)

Airline Highway was once an EPA Superfund site. This is a very misleading statement. A 17.5-acre portion of the Airline Highway site was on the list for potential EPA Superfund sites decades ago, as the site was leased by the owner at the time for use as a landfill from January 1978 to December 1979. At the time, all sites assessed under this regulatory process were listed as such. During this time period, household waste was accepted at the site and buried to a depth of 15 feet below surface grade as the area was previously a lake and bar pit used to supply soil to build Airline Highway and was lined with a suitable clay layer beneath the landfill. In 1995, the EPA completed a report for the site and concluded that “no further remedial action planned” under Superfund was required. In a letter dated July 1, 2011, LDEQ indicated site completion and determined that all requirements had been met for the former landfill. Currently, the area is in compliance with all LDEQ requirements.  Moving forward, BREC will complete groundwater sampling to confirm environmental conditions and ensure the site remains in compliance prior to any development activities, which will be coordinated closely with LDEQ.

Moving the Zoo will have a negative $30 million-dollar impact on North Baton Rouge. See attached for an independent economist’s review of the impact analysis performed by the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District, which points to major concerns surrounding the methodology utilized and assumptions made in claiming the corresponding impact on the area immediately surrounding the Zoo. The Zoo attracts visitors, employs workers, and makes expenditures from a geographic area too large to perform an economic impact analysis of such a specific area. Our estimated figures in the attached information sheet, based on a study conducted by nationally recognized economist Stephen Fuller, shows an increase in attendance, revenue, and economic impact in the nine-parish region if improvements are made at the current area, however, we have not received any factual evidence that supports the claim that the Zoo is an economic driver for the North Baton Rouge area or that improvements at the current location would have a greater increase in attendance, revenue, and economic impact than improvements at the Airline Highway Park location.

BREC chose to locate the Zoo in North Baton Rouge and should keep it there. The decision to locate the Baton Rouge Zoo in its current location was based on a land donation and politics, not by following the criteria for success that define successful zoos today and are based on objective zoo industry standards. If our Zoo is to thrive, we must attract private donations and make a wise business decision to ensure it is in the most highly visible location, near a major highway or interstate, near like attractions and closer to its core audience.

It is possible to create a super-regional attraction without moving the Zoo. BREC has demonstrated on multiple occasions that a large portion of the current 600+ acre site cannot be developed due to the presence of wetlands and the cost-prohibitive mitigation actions that would be required to take place. This would also be in clear conflict with BREC’s focus on and commitment to area conservation. The plan presented yesterday would require BREC to purchase three additional pieces of property, demolish an abandoned prison and mitigate wetlands. That cost did not appear to be calculated in the proposed price of the potential project and none of the presenters at the news conference mentioned any attempts at securing outside funding. This level of redevelopment at the current site, much like what BREC has proposed for the alternate zoo site, cannot be accomplished without significant levels of outside funding and does not address the fact that an equal level of investment at a more sustainable location would have a greater economic impact. While we appreciate the passion each these individuals have for our zoo, they also have little to no experience designing parks or zoos while BREC’s efforts have been and will continue to be informed by some of the nation’s leading experts in zoo design and planning. We must continue to be realistic about what the current site can accommodate and what a zoo in this location will achieve in terms of economic impact for all of East Baton Rouge Parish. In August 2017, BREC Commissioners sent a letter to every elected official in the greater Baton Rouge area that sent letters in opposition to the Commission on the relocation of the zoo. This letter from our Commissioners requested a pledge of support from these elected officials to raise funding for the Zoo at its current location and a preliminary indication of the amount of support we could expect. The elected officials who were in receipt of this letter include: Senator Regina Barrow, Representative Barbara Carpenter, East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, Zachary Mayor David Amrhein, Baker Mayor Darnell Waites, Central Mayor Jr. Shelton, Zachary Mayor Pro Tempore Cavin, Zachary Councilwoman Laura O’Brien, Zachary Councilman Tommy Womack, Zachary Councilman Brandon Noel, Baker Councilman Pete Heine, and Baker Councilman Charles Vincent.    BREC did not receive any pledges of support following the receipt of that letter, further affirming our assertion that the current location will not be able to attract additional funding other than tax dollars. BREC has stated on numerous occasions its commitment to pursuing private donations, grants and other funding mechanisms before considering a request for additional tax dollars to fund a re-imagined Zoo and Greenwood Regional Park.

Airline Highway is closer to Ascension Parish than East Baton Rouge Parish. BREC only has jurisdiction to provide parks and recreation services to residents of East Baton Rouge Parish. Airline Highway Park is, and always has been, a vital part of the BREC system. Attendance by citizens that live outside of the parish and the resulting revenue increases at BREC Special Facilities such as the Zoo, golf courses, and Liberty Lagoon help support the cost of operating these facilities and ultimately result in less taxpayer dollars required to operate and maintain these facilities.

BREC Commissioners should have joined reporters on the bus tour yesterday.  Neither the BREC staff nor Commission was invited to attend the bus tour or news conference. We learned about it just as the media did, through a news release.

BREC is the agency that connects people to parks and nature in East Baton Rouge Parish. It is a political subdivision of the state of Louisiana created in 1946 to develop, maintain and operate public park and recreational facilities. Throughout its 70-year history, BREC has taken seriously its responsibility to improve the health, safety, environment and quality of life for all citizens. BREC was among the first park agencies to earn national accreditation and recently earned reaccreditation for an unprecedented fifth time, meeting all 144 standards. BREC is a two-time National Gold Medal Award winner and 12-time national finalist. 

BREC's Review of the BRNEDD Economic Impact Study

Flood Mitigation Document

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