BREC commissioners vote against moving the zoo

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - BREC commissioners voted to keep the Baton Rouge Zoo in it's current location during a public meeting Thursday.

The proposal to move the zoo location to the state fairgrounds on Airline Highway has sparked debate across the parish. Greenwood Park, located in the northern part of the parish, is the current home of the zoo.

A packed house filled the chambers as the meeting got underway. All seats were filled. There were several elected leaders in attendance, including Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome. The mayor, along with the mayors from Baker, Central and Zachary, publicly spoke out against moving the zoo earlier this week.

Typically, public comment happens first but for this meeting public comment was pushed down the agenda to coincide with the zoo relocation presentation.

Up first, Woodrow Muhammad with the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District presented an economic impact analysis regarding the zoo move. The analysis uses 2016 economic data from the U.S. Census. He said the North Economic Development District supports the Re-Imagined Greenwood Park with an improved zoo at the same location.

Members of BREC shared their presentation next, asking first, "Why do we need a zoo in Baton Rouge?" They pointed out that Baton Rouge would be the largest city in the U.S. without a zoo if it is removed entirely.

A zoo planning firm led the presentation for BREC. The firm is also part of similar discussions about relocating zoos happening in Jackson, MS, Sarasota, FL and Oklahoma City, OK.

The firm spoke with more than 25 people to gather feedback on the current location saying there are clear facts that support the Airline location over the current zoo spot. The consultant addressed the question, "Why Airline Highway?" They answered with a slide showing that the proposed location meets all the criteria of success for which the firm is looking. The first one deals with fundability of necessary investment. Another success criteria pointed out by the firm was Airline Highway's location proximity to a major highway and the nearby I-10.

A traffic study was done with assistance from DOTD. The consultants collected traffic on Airline Highway as well as a traffic study comparison to Greenwood to get an idea of existing visitors and zoo employee traffic, versus traffic coming in and out of both sites. The consultant says that they will need to make changes to Airline Highway in order to make a zoo work there, including lengthening left turn lanes in some spots. They added there would not be a lot of off-site impact.

Flood concerns were addressed by an engineer who explained drainage and flood prevention plans, showcasing a study that would create additional floodplain storage to eliminate flood problems.

An environmental consulting firm found that a former landfill could be used for parking or land space in the new zoo development. The landfill, a former municipal household waste landfill, was closed by the Department of Health and Hospitals in the 90s, meeting all DEQ regulations.

The consultant firm also shared imagined designs of BREC's Airline Highway Park, which includes a water park, before allowing BREC Commissioner Carolyn McKnight to close their presentation. "Not one developer has come to me about developments at Greenwood. We need to move on from the status quo," said McKnight.

Public comments began with Mayor Sharon Weston Broome who has publicly voiced her opinion against relocation. She says she is committed to reviving the Baton Rouge zoo. "BREC has not taken care of their asset, rather they let the zoo and Greenwood Park die a slow death. Let's revive these abundant resources we already have in our community. The zoo can be updated overtime to take the burden off taxpayers," said Mayor Broome.

One Baton Rouge resident took the microphone specifically to address the needs of the animals, begging the commissioners to leave the animals in their current location. She said, "Put your beloved pets in their place. The current zoo location did not flood in 2016. Do you think zoo animals will be a priority for rescue? How do you get a rhino out of something like that?"

State Representative Barbara Carpenter said, "All of the things that Ms.McKnight said, we imagine it as well in that same process. You have a zoo on 600 acres of land and certainly there's enough room to put all these different pavilions and parks in that location. I represent people who are very concerned for the move, about the animals and what could happen again with the disaster. All I'm asking you is to consider what these people have said to you this whole year about this situation. There are many ways to work this out." Her final statement was heard with applause, "We have enough slides and swings. We need some education on that end of the parish as well. You've reimagined this. We've reimagined this too, but where it is."

One longtime opponent of moving the zoo, Becky Bond, asked commissioners to consider their legacies. "Think about Buckskin Bill who collected pennies from children to build this zoo where it is. How do you want to be remembered for years to come?" Bond asked the commission.

Another opponent, Sateria Tate, also asked the commission to consider Buckskin Bill's legacy. "You have the opportunity to take that legacy and create an economic driver and make it a destination location that we've been needing," said Tate addressing the commission.

Many people from nearby communities spoke out against the move to Airline Highway. A Prairieville woman who lives within miles of the proposed zoo location, addressed the commission with concerns about added traffic on an already congested Airline Highway. Residents from Santa Maria say they've collected more than 200 signatures from folks in their community opposed to the zoo moving near them.

One Baton Rouge resident who opposes the relocation, accused the commission of not supporting the black community. Gary Chambers said, "We've waited 200 years to have a board that's majority African American, then it decides to take $100 million asset from the black community."

Few members of the community have spoken in support of the move. One speaker said, "People are shooting the messenger. Give the zoo a chance to succeed. Putting it on Airline is that chance."

Another speaker in support of the relocation said, "This is exciting. I don't know why it's become so controversial. You'll have a water park on one side of town and a reimagined park on the other.” She then challenged the commission, "Have professional courage, even when it becomes unfavorable. Put our resources where it will get the most return on investment. Location is everything," she said.  

After more than three hours into the meeting, public comments closed at 8:12 p.m.

"The decision made by the commission will reflect what they heard tonight," said Commissioner Lloyd Benson II, kicking off a round of statements from some of the commissioners.

Commissioner Davis Rhoner said he will respectfully vote no because he believes the zoo should stay where it is. "The current location of the zoo offers reasonable access to the interstate. I believe with way-finding improvements, access to the facility will be greatly improved."

"I believe with all of my heart we should have a first class zoo. I also believe it did not arrive in the condition it is in. It started a long time ago. Where was the energy and allocation of money the past five years? I want a first class zoo and a first class city." said Commissioner Shelton C. Dixon.

Commissioner Mike Walker put a motion on the table to keep the zoo in it's present location. The commissioners voted unanimously to approve the motion.


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