Zoo BluesBy ANTHONY WARREN,
Location cited as factor in low attendance at Jackson Zoo
For the Jackson Zoo, it’s all about location, location, location.
The zoo has been hemorrhaging visitors for years, and local and out-of-towners alike cite the park’s surroundings as a major reason why.
Laurie McRee, who served on the Friends of the Zoo board of trustees for nearly 30 years, has never had a problem visiting the zoo herself, but understands why its location is a deterrent.
“It’s a tough drive to get to the zoo – it’s in a deteriorating part of the city,” she said. “There are plenty of people who don’t want to go out there.”
The zoo is located at 2918 W. Capitol St.
The park is accessed by visitors two main ways. Northeast Jackson, Fondren and Belhaven residents typically take Woodrow Wilson Avenue to Ellis Avenue, and then turn onto West Capitol.
Those coming from South Jackson, Madison or Ridgeland take I-220 to the Capitol Street exit.
Seventeen abandoned, dilapidated or burned homes line Capitol between the interstate and the park’s main entrance.
Across from that entrance sits another abandoned structure, a former commercial building covered in graffiti.
The impact of the surrounding neighborhood is not lost on Zoo Executive Director Beth Poff.
“Location is a big concern – the blight around the zoo, the blight when (people) drive to the zoo, West Jackson’s perception as a whole,” she said.
She pointed to comments posted on Trip Advisor.
Thirty percent of those commenting on the park rate their experiences as “poor” or “terrible,” according to the Web site.
Some comments discuss the zoo itself, while others deride the park’s surroundings.
“If you do attempt this adventure, I would highly recommend carrying a concealed weapon. This area is not for the weak,” wrote one person in September.
Another writing about the zoo in October compared driving along Capitol Street to driving through Mogadishu.
The 54-acre park is located in Precinct Two, the most dangerous precinct in the capital city.
So far this year, the precinct has reported 1,118 property crimes and 381 violent crimes.
By comparison, 181 violent crimes and 990 property crimes have occurred in Precinct Four, which covers the Northside.
Of crimes, Precinct Two had 450 auto burglaries, 191 auto thefts, 157 aggravated assaults, 148 armed robberies and 19 homicides, according to the Jackson Police Department’s most recent crime stat report.
Police Chief Lee Vance, though, said no major crimes have occurred at the zoo itself, and cites the larger events held there, like Zoo Brew, which have “gone off without a hitch.”
“When there are major events, we make accommodations to have a large number of police there to prevent any burglaries,” he said. “As far as I know, most of the large events go off without a hitch.”
Zoo Brew is a major fund-raiser that draws thousands of people to the park each year for live music, food and alcohol.
Even with successful events like Zoo Brew, attendance at the park continues to decline. Since 2007, visits to the park have dropped by nearly half.
For fiscal year 2017, 100,100 people visited the facility, down from 106,000 in 2016 and 180,000 in 2007, Poff said.
With fewer dollars coming in from ticket and gift shop sales, coupled with cuts in city funding, the zoo has had to cut staff, defer maintenance and cut out exhibits. The zoo has also had to give up accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
Today, the park has 33 full-time employees, down from 37 in 2016. Additionally, six open positions have been frozen.
“We’ve downsized the smaller, older exhibits (and) cut staff to the bone. This year we had to cut even further,” Poff said. “That can’t continue and us have any kind of quality zoo at all.” The zoo has approximately 200 species, but has lost major attractions in recent years. In 2010, the zoo announced plans to move its elephants to the Nashville Zoo. The animals were one of the park’s most popular attractions, but the zoo would have had to spend an estimated $10 million to build a creature habitat to maintain accreditation, Poff said.
Earlier this year, the zoo also gave up its orangutans, also because it would have had to build a bigger facility for the animals.
Then in August, the zoo announced that its white rhinoceros, Robbie, had passed away at 43. In October, a giraffe and leopard died, and earlier this month, the zoo announced that Emerson, its 10-year-old Sumatran tiger on loan to the Atlanta Zoo, died.
Poff believes the solution includes fixing potholes, removing or repairing the blighted properties, and transforming West Capitol into a “gateway to the city.”
Ronnie Crudup Jr., executive director of New Horizon Ministries Inc., agrees that blighted properties are a problem in the West Jackson area, but said other factors contribute to the zoo’s lagging attendance.
New Horizon has purchased 160 dilapidated properties just north of West Capitol, with plans to demolish some and rehabilitate others.
He said the area has few attractions to complement the zoo and draw visitors. By contrast, the LeFleur Museum District is in a high-traffic area in Northeast Jackson, and is home to four museums, a golf course, a baseball stadium and a state park.
“(The zoo is) not in an area a lot of people go,” he said. “You have to be intentional about going to that area.”
This is the second part of a series on the future of the Jackson Zoological Park.