BREC responds after calls grow for agency to cut ties with super - WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

BREC responds after calls grow for agency to cut ties with superintendent, zoo director

Baton Rouge Zoo (Source: WAFB) Baton Rouge Zoo (Source: WAFB)
BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) -

Councilwoman Chauna Banks and the Keep the Zoo at Greenwood Park Committee (KZAG) held a news conference Wednesday calling for immediate change in leadership at BREC and the Baton Rouge Zoo.

The press conference was held in the wake of the announcement that BREC has lost its zoo accreditation. 

RELATED: Assoc. of Zoos and Aquariums opts to not renew accreditation for BREC'S Baton Rouge Zoo

The group also announced a plan to create a commission that will be chaired by Renita Marshall, D.V.M,  department head for Agricultural Sciences, Southern University Land Grant Campus and Donnie Miller, director of Business Development, Baton Rouge Area Chamber to develop a strategic plan for the Baton Rouge Zoo at Greenwood Park.

Banks says the time is up for leaders at BREC and the zoo and she is calling on the BREC commission to take action.

“It is up to the commissioners to make sure that proper leadership and the restoration of public trust takes place,” said Banks.

She and activists like Becky Bond with KZAG, who fought to keep the zoo in its current location, also want a third-party independent investigation into how the attraction has fallen into such poor conditions, alleging administrators have done very little to stop it.

“The issues that have plagued our zoo are not new, nor are they related to location. By all accounts, they appear to be related to mismanagement,” said Bond.

BREC superintendent Carolyn McKnight slammed the claims in a statement released Wednesday. “To state that the zoo’s decline is due to intentional negligence is categorically false and borderline defamatory. I invite anyone making such accusations to provide any sort of evidence to support these false claims,” the statement reads.

McKnight says they have pumped $8.6M into the zoo over the past 13 years to create new exhibits and amenities and another $2M in maintenance in the past decade. As for the loss of accreditation, zoo director, Phil Frost, said in a news conference earlier this week that the decision was made simply because of the age of the facilities, not due to neglect.

“The main reason behind the decision was our aging facilities that in so many cases, no longer meet the modern standards of today’s zoos,” said Frost.

Frost admits some of the concerns from the accrediting committee also fell on the recent decision by the BREC commission to not move the facility from north Baton Rouge. “The accreditation commission had several questions related to the recent vote by the BREC commission to not move the zoo and how that would affect the physical changes needed,” said Frost.

With renovating the zoo top of mind, McKnight in a statement vowed they are working hard to move forward. “We welcome the ideas of everyone into our planning efforts being led by experts with decades of experience,” the statement reads.

Banks now questions the timing of the accrediting blow, saying it's too close for comfort. She and others concerned about the facility’s future are now forming a separate commission to ensure bringing the zoo back to life is a priority.

“There’s a lot at stake here,” said Banks. “You don’t wait until it caves in and that’s what this is like.”

BREC released an in depth statement and several documents about the zoo on Wednesday afternoon. The information can be found below.

Recently, comments have been made regarding the need for a strategic plan and additional investments for the Baton Rouge Zoo at Greenwood Park. It is important to note recent history as it relates to this call for investment and supporting plans, particularly taking into account the clear direction previously provided on multiple occasions by the citizens of East Baton Rouge Parish.

In 2004, voters passed the $70 million Imagine Your Park program. Of this program, and the $45 million capital improvement plan, the Zoo was allocated $5.2 million for new additions. That allocation was based on approximately 125 public meetings asking the citizens of the parish how we should spend these funds and invest in our parks and recreation system. At the time, citizens’ top priorities were trails and more quality parks such as the twelve larger, community parks strategically located around the parish that BREC has constructed in the years since the vote.

While BREC initially allocated $5.2 million to the Zoo through this process, in actuality $8.6 million was spent between 2004 and 2017 to create new exhibits and amenities. In addition, the Zoo receives about $5 million per year for salaries of employees, goods and services to care for the animals, facility maintenance and to provide services to the public. Since 2007, our maintenance department has spent more than $2 million maintaining the facility, including approximately $300,000 in the last year alone.

In 2014, BREC held another series of more than 33 public meetings to gather input from the community and create the Imagine Your Parks 2 plan, which was designed to continue the progress made during the implementation of the original plan to update aging facilities and parks across the parish. That plan, a renewal of BREC’s capital improvement plan, was approved by voters and included $73 million to spend in construction over a ten-year period. Of that $73-million, $5 million was allocated to the Zoo – the largest amount for any single facility within BREC. Both the 2004 and 2014 Imagine Your Parks plans are available on BREC’s website with details on the allocation of funds within each plan, as approved by the voters of the parish.

To state that the Zoo’s decline is due to intentional negligence is categorically false and borderline defamatory toward the many men and women who work at the Zoo, and who have dedicated their entire professional careers to the safe-keeping and well-being of animals. I invite anyone making such accusations to provide any sort of evidence to support these false claims. As we have said all along, BREC’s budget must be allocated to more than 180 parks and facilities across the parish and simply is not large enough to fund the scope of the renovations needed at the Zoo. That is why we have been and will continue to be so focused on attracting private donations, seeking out grants and aggressively pursuing other alternative financing strategies. At no time in the planning process in 2004 nor 2014 did we hear a disagreement about the allocation of these dollars, nor did we receive any suggestions that we should focus the bulk of the funding on one facility, rather than spreading it out across BREC’s 180+ park system.

As for the process itself, we are currently looking at our preliminary designs for the current Zoo site, which were developed by zoo design experts, with the goal of turning these concepts into a master plan that will be shared at public meetings in order to solicit ideas and generate a public discussion of what residents across the parish would like to see in a new Zoo. While we understand there is a group of individuals who opposed the proposal to move the Zoo to a more sustainable location that have indicated they plan to independently pursue a strategic plan for the current Zoo site, we have not heard directly from any of these individuals. However, we welcome the ideas of everyone into our planning efforts being led by experts with decades of experience in doing so, which is consistent with the process we have established for the successful planning and execution of major projects with a far-reaching impact on our community.

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 14-time national finalist.

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