3 On Your Side Special Report: Moving the Zoo? - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

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3 On Your Side Special Report: Moving the Zoo?

Current zoo entrance (Source: WLBT) Current zoo entrance (Source: WLBT)
Kevin Davis Knox, the zoo's giraffe (Source: WLBT) Kevin Davis Knox, the zoo's giraffe (Source: WLBT)
Beth Poff, executive director of the Jackson Zoo (Source: WLBT) Beth Poff, executive director of the Jackson Zoo (Source: WLBT)
Boarded-up building across from the current zoo (Source: WLBT) Boarded-up building across from the current zoo (Source: WLBT)
LeFleur's Bluff State Park on Museum Boulevard (Source: WLBT) LeFleur's Bluff State Park on Museum Boulevard (Source: WLBT)
JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

The announcement on March 27, 2018, that the Jackson Zoo could soon be moving out of West Jackson has been met with both excitement and concern. The mayor has come out against it, but the zoo's director says the only other choice is to shut down.

READ MORE: Jackson Zoo eyes move to LeFleur's Bluff State Park

Just five years ago, the zoo commissioned a master plan that called for $100 million worth of improvements and expansion at the current site on West Capitol Street, where it's been since 1921. The zoo's executive director, Beth Poff, says the non-profit board that runs the zoo then commissioned a feasibility study to determine how to raise that kind of money, even if it had to be done in phases.

"They basically came back and told us, 'You can't do it,'" Poff says.

Can't do it because every potential donor the consulting firm interviewed, more than three dozen in all, expressed concern about the zoo's location in west Jackson, bordered by West Capitol Street, Parkside Place, and West Woodrow Wilson Avenue. Many said they were not willing to give any substantial contributions to a facility they believe has an uncertain future.

"(The consultants) said you've got two camps out there,” Poff says. “Some people said they're not ready for that kind of significant donation or investment until something happens in the area around the zoo. They found that that had to happen first. And then the second group of people said until the zoo is in a better location, we don't feel like investing."

Zoo figures show attendance has dropped by some 46 percent since 2003, so gate revenue is down. Annual funding from the city, which owns the zoo property, is also down.

"Our request last year was for $1.5 million,” Poff says, “They were only able to come up with $900,000. That’s that's why our staff is cut way back, our ability to do events is cut way back, our marketing is almost non-existent."

The study found that anything less than $1.5 million from the city each year is unsustainable. So the board formed a task force to figure out what to do. It was the task force that recommended the move to LeFleur's Bluff State Park on Interstate 55 in north Jackson.

"That was a hard decision for them to make the recommendation, then hard to pass on to the board, who just a few years ago had made a commitment to stay here," Poff says.

The board has now embraced it and the synergies that could come from being nestled between the Mississippi Children's Museum and the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, which are also located at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park.

"To be part of a museum district, we saw all kinds of opportunities there -- cooperative marketing, ticketing, and security, shared parking lots, whatever you wanted to look at," Poff says.

She says the plans would include an African savanna area that could be seen from the highway.

“So just imagine driving down the interstate and you would happen to see a giraffe head sticking up over the trees,” she says. “They would be a great advertiser for us."

VIDEO: Jackson Zoo patrons react to possible relocation

Poff says the nine-hole LeFleur's Bluff golf course would go away, replaced by a zoo designed from scratch to take advantage of the hills and wetlands that are already there. The first phase would be about ten acres smaller than the zoo on Capitol, but Poff says it would be more smartly designed, with administrative and maintenance buildings out of sight.

There are no drawings or financial projections yet; those would come from a more comprehensive study of the site that Poff says would cost about $350,000. She says she and the board had hoped to get funding for that through the legislature, but the bill that contained it did not survive the session.

They’re now hoping to get the money through grants and other sources by the end of the year. After that, the real fundraising would begin. Poff says Phase 1 would be about $50 million.

Poff says once it's open, a new zoo with higher attendance and more enthusiastic donors would actually need less annual funding from the city.

"I would want the city to still have a buy-in, because they are still going to get a benefit,” she says, “but I could see their investment...drop to $250,000 or something like that, which makes a lot more sense."

When presented with that figure, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba affirmed his desire for the zoo to remain in its current location.

“I have serious questions about the new proposed location for a number of reasons, and my position remains unchanged at this time,” he told MSNewsNow.com.

Poff says the board is moving forward and is hopeful that everyone will, ultimately, get behind the move. She says all of Jackson will benefit more from a new zoo at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park than a struggling zoo on West Capitol Street.

"I've always thought that Jackson and Mississippi in general deserves a quality zoo,” she says. “That's what brought me here to begin with. We ran into a lot of walls as far as funding for so many years, so I'm encouraged that those types of opportunities are opening back up."

Poff says the zoo has had preliminary discussions with the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, which manages the state-owned property at LeFleur's Bluff State Park.

She says the current zoo would continue to operate while the new zoo is under construction.

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