Phil Bredesen has an arena, a stadium, a library, and a Country Music Hall of Fame linked to his mayoral tenure.
Mayor Bill Purcell is hoping that his list will include the Nashville Zoo. With a series of government reforms, a major investment in sidewalks, and a large Metro employee pay raise nearly behind him, the mayor plans to ask the Metro Council to bankroll capital improvements for the Nashville Zoo.
“The zoo has asked that the city consider committing up to $5 million a year over the next three years,” says Metro finance director David Manning. “We believe that request is reasonable given the level of support citizens are showing for the zoo and the improvement the zoo will add to the recreational facilities of the city.”
Nashville Zoo chairman Jim Hunt believes that the city’s commitment will help launch a $165 million private and public fund-raising campaign that, if successful, would grow the zoo from a relatively small animal park to one of the nation’s largest.
“World-class cities have world-class zoos,” Hunt says. “The Titans and the Predators are great, but support for pro sports will fluctuate over the years. The zoo is forever and for everyone, no matter how much money you make.”
Manning says that a request for zoo money will come in the fall with the capital improvements budget. He says that the potential $15 million contribution would not be used for operating the zoo, but instead to enlarge and improve the attraction, which has been located on the 180-acre Grassmere property on Nolensville Road for four years. “Most major zoos around the country have some form of city support,” Manning says.
Members of the Metro Council have not been fully briefed on the mayor’s proposed support for the zoo. Told of the possibility, at-large Council member Leo Waters says that the idea has merit but that it nevertheless would be a “tough sell.”
“There will be a tremendous amount of pressure to focus on infrastructure, on sidewalks and stormwater runoff, and things like that that benefit individual districts,” Waters says.
The budget now before the Council also contains a one-time $500,000 grant for the zoo meant to help the facility cover operational expenses while it gets its fund-raising campaign going.
If Purcell supports civic subsidies for the zoo as planned, he will be the first mayor in Nashville history to do so. Unlike St. Louis, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Memphis, Nashville does not have a history of supporting zoos. The Memphis Zoo, for example, has a budget of almost four times the size of the Nashville Zoo.
The Nashville area had no real zoo until the 1980s, when two separate animal parks were started. One was the Nashville Zoo near Joelton, developed by businessman Farzin Ferdowski. The other was Grassmere Park, started after the Croft family donated the Grassmere property for use as an animal park.
Both struggled financially. After Grassmere closed, then-Mayor Bredesen convinced the zoo’s founder into leaving the Cheatham County site for the former Grassmere site (with the incentive that the zoo would pay only $1 annual rent). At that time, the Nashville Zoo began to expand its board to include many well-known Nashville business leaders and people with fund-raising connections.
However, the zoo has had so little money to operate that it actually has loaned many of its animals to other cities, as there aren’t the resources to properly tend to the zoo’s inhabitants. Most of the zoo exhibits have been funded by a handful of patrons, including Robin Patton, the Frist family, Sandy Brooks, Tom Loventhal, Rodes Hart, the Memorial Foundation, SunTrust Bank, and BellSouth Corp. The zoo now uses only about 20 percent of the Grassmere property, and Hunt is the first to admit it has a long way to go.
“We have this wonderful property with only a handful of large exhibits on it,” Hunt says. “We have three or four years of exhibit building ahead of us before we can truly say that we are fulfilling people’s expectations.”
Perhaps there is no better symbol of the zoo’s state of affairs than the fact that it can’t afford a giraffe exhibitthis despite the fact that two giraffes have adorned its logo for years. “Giraffes are expensive to keep because of the cost of housing them,” Hunt says. “They take up a lot more space than animals such as tigers and cheetahs.”
The Nashville Zoo envisioned in the board’s 15-year master plan would be one of the finest in the Southeast. It would cover about 150 acres and include themed areas such as Australia, South America, North America, the African Plains, and Madagascar. It also would contain a large amphitheater and several expensive exhibits not included in many zoos, such as polar bears, panda bears, and gorillas.
The zoo’s board members hope that facility attendance, now less than 400,000 a year, will more than double by 2010.
To fund an expansion, the zoo’s long-term financial goal is to raise $75 million from government sources and $90 million from private donations over the next 15 years. Most of that amount would pay for capital improvements, with the idea that a $15 million endowment would be set aside to defray the cost of ongoing operations.
Current admission prices at the zoo are $6 for adults and $4 for children. Hall says ticket prices should not go up very much. “As a general rule, zoos cannot pay for themselves and have to be heavily subsidized,” he says. “[It] needs to be something that all people can afford to visit.”
In recent years, the city has established a pattern of donating money to help fund the construction, but not the ongoing cost, of nonprofit tourist attractions. Most recently, Metro gave $19 million to help retrofit the Broadway post office into the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.
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