Zoo Blues

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Move could help zoo correct problems study concludes

A new location could be key to saving the Jackson Zoo, according to a memo from zoo Executive Director Beth Poff.

The memo, which was sent to city officials in June, states that the zoo’s location is a major deterrent to visitors, and moving may be necessary to save it.

The memo also states that the zoo may need to rethink its funding strategy if additional city funding is not provided.

“The lack of destination attractions in West Jackson, the ill-repaired roadways and the blight, which mars the main street leading to the zoo, contribute to the perception that West Jackson is not a family-friendly and secure area,” Poff wrote.

Poff went on to say “if the city cannot provide reasonable and necessary operating support over the next eight years, then the Jackson Zoological Society must consider … developing a zoo at a new location, with expanded funding from multiple public and private entities.”

The zoo is governed by the zoological society.

The park is located at 2918 W. Capitol St., in West Jackson.

Poff’s claims are backed by results found in a 2016 feasibility study conducted by Schultz and Williams. The consultants cited the zoo’s current location as its greatest detriment.

“Although the zoo enjoys status as an important community asset, its image suffers from low visibility and a challenged location,” the consultants wrote.

The zoo brought on Schultz and Williams to determine whether donors would support a $15 million capital campaign to fund park improvements.

The overwhelming conclusion was that donors would not.

Findings show that “100 percent of the people interviewed had concerns about donating to the zoo at its current location.”

Another “handful of interviewees shared that their gift would be much larger if the zoo were to move.”

The zoo is located in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Jackson.

It is surrounded by blight, including 17 dilapidated structures lining the one-mile stretch of West Capitol between I-220 and the zoo’s main entrance.

Additionally, stats from the Jackson Police Department show that the area is in one of the most dangerous precincts in the city, Precinct Two.

Zoo attendance has dropped by nearly half since 2003, and many credit the park’s surroundings.

Last budget year, just 100,100 people visited the park, down from 180,000 in 2003.

 

Because of its location, park officials have discussed relocating for years.

Many have argued the zoo should be moved to the nine-hole golf course at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park.

The course is next to the LeFleur’s Museum District, which is home to four major museums, a baseball stadium and camp ground, which would provide the zoo with the destination attractions it needs.

And unlike the zoo’s current location, the district is located at the corner of I-55 and Lakeland Drive, and is visible from the interstate.

Libby Hartfield, a now retired director of the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, one of the district’s museums, supports the move, at least on paper.

“Can you imagine what a wonderful family area we would be developing?” she asked. “It would be a wonderful attraction.”

However, Hartfield said the golf course does have some low-lying areas that flood when the Pearl River rises. The park is located along the Pearl, which also floods low-lying nature trails maintained by the science museum.

“I wouldn’t want to move the big animals every time it floods,” she said.

Another option could be locating the zoo in another part of the museum district, on city-owned property on the north side of Lakeland. The city previously wanted to rezone the 50-acre site to bring in a Costco.

However, the efforts were blocked by Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.

The zoo leases approximately 100 acres from the city, and uses 54, according to the park’s Web site.

Building a new zoo would cost at least $2 million an acre, and would have to be constructed in phases. A 54-acre zoo would cost $108 million.

To cover costs, the zoo would likely have to find multiple sources in both the public and private sectors.

However, with the city and state experiencing revenue shortfalls, it’s unclear if enough public support is available.

For two years in a row, Jackson has had to raise taxes to make ends meet. The city only contributed $980,000 for the current fiscal year, much less than the $1.5 million requested by the park.

And state lawmakers interviewed by the Sun appear unwilling to take on the burden.

District 25 Sen. Walter Michel who represents the Northside, said building a new zoo was “not on (his) radar of capital projects right now.”

House Speaker Philip Gunn supports building a new zoo, but is hopeful that “mostly private funds can be used (for its construction).”

Complicating matters is the zoo’s internal fund-raising efforts.

Consultants point to the zoo’s high turnover at the development director position. Additionally, there are no “upper-level membership categor(ies) to encourage larger gifts, nor has there been a systematic effort to cultivate, solicit or steward larger donors for ongoing zoo needs,” according to the study.

In 2014, the zoo brought in almost $755,000 through contributions, or about 22 percent of its total operating revenue. In 2015, that amount fell to $409,681, the study states.

 

Phil Frost, director of Baton Rouge Zoo, said a combination of public and private funding will be needed to finance its relocation efforts, which are expected to run around $110 million.

Like Jackson, the Baton Rouge Zoo is also considering relocating because of its location.

In 2016, the Baton Rouge Recreation (BREC) Commission gave zoo officials the go-ahead to begin looking for a new site.

“There’s nothing around us that would draw people to the area,” said Frost. “We sit on an island, with industrial on one side, and refineries and residential on the other sides. It’s not an ideal location for a major attraction.”

The Baton Rouge Zoo is located in the 70807 ZIP code. There are a number of similarities between 70807 and 39209, where the Jackson Zoo is located.

Both ZIP codes experienced significant population declines between 2010 and 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Both area also have a large number of vacant homes.

In 2010, the Baton Rouge neighborhood has 20,377 residents compared with 18,984 in 2015. In that same time period, the population in 39209 decreased from 29,617 to 25,258, census data shows.

Eighteen percent of the homes in 39209 are vacant, compared with 11.4 percent in 70807.

Consultants brought on by Baton Rouge say relocating the zoo would more than double attendance in the first five years of opening. Additionally, the amount needed for renovating the park is about the same as relocating it, Frost said.

“If we stay here, it will take 15 years to renovate ... our best projections would be that attendance would go from to 375,000,” he said.

Baton Rouge averages about 225,000 visitors each year, he said. 

“If we build in a more sustainable location ... construction would be done in five years and we’re looking at 500,000 (annual) visitors,” he said.

 

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