N.C. Zoo must press ahead with Asia section, leaders say

To remain a top-notch facility, the N.C. Zoo should move ahead with plans to build Asia, its third continent, and find a way to free itself from the bureaucracy of state government, park leaders said Wednesday.

At the same time, they said, the N.C. Zoo Society, the park's private fundraising arm, should pursue development possibilities on land it owns adjacent to the zoo. Bringing in an upscale hotel with conference space and family-style entertainment, paired with a visit to the expanded zoo, would turn Asheboro from a day trip into a three-day tourist destination, they said.

At a time when budget constraints have most departments of state government searching for ways to cut spending, zoo Director David Jones said one thing the state must not do is let its investment at the zoo stagnate.

"I don't think we have an alternative to going down this road," Jones told a joint meeting of the boards of the N.C. Zoo and the Zoo Society on Wednesday afternoon.

Continuing budget cuts have left the zoo short-staffed and forced it to delay repairs and renovations to aging buildings and equipment. Jones said the park has to add exhibits to attract new visitors and income. Otherwise, he said, "We will just simply continue to go downhill."

Jones presented the preliminary findings of a nearly yearlong study on how much it would cost to build Asia - $110 million - and what impact it would have on the local and state economy. Even the $100,000 cost of the study was too much for the state, which let Randolph County and the city of Asheboro pay for part.

Funding has been a challenge for the zoo since it was conceived in the 1960s as a source of tourism revenue for the state and a world-class facility where visitors could learn about wild animals in a natural environment. With the help of an Asheboro textile manufacturer who saw the park's development potential, it landed in Randolph County. The local chamber of commerce raised the money to buy more than 1,400 acres to get it started.

How it's funded

Private support has continued to be critical since the zoo opened with Africa in 1979; in the current budget year, the zoo will get about $10.5 million of its budget from state appropriations, and an additional $7.5 million from gate receipts, concessions and donations.

More than 700,000 people visit the zoo each year, including about 100,000 children who come with school groups. Most visitors come from within 75 miles, including Raleigh and Charlotte.

The zoo's supporters say its rural location gives it a distinct advantage.

"No other zoo has the land holdings this one has," Jones said, giving it the room to expand.

The zoo now owns about 2,100 acres.

At one time, the zoo planned to represent the plants and animals of all seven continents by the middle of this century, but funding has only been available for Africa and North America.

Asia, which could include tigers, pandas, snow leopards, orangutans and other popular species, would be expected to bring an additional 300,000 visitors a year to the zoo. The Zoo Society has said it would raise half the money for the new continent.

With a million visitors a year, consultants say, the area would be attractive to private developers, who already have shown interest in building restaurants and other amenities nearby.

Jones said his vision would include the hotel/conference center and an array of recreational businesses built on Zoo Society-owned land just outside the zoo, such as a water park, horseback riding and other activities.

"I like to think of it as a biological Colonial Williamsburg," said Jones, who hopes the private development will go ahead even if Asia is years away.

However, he said, all that work toward making the zoo financially self-sufficient would be thwarted by the everyday inefficiencies of government bureaucracy if the way the zoo is operated does not change. Presently, every purchase made for the park must go through the same scrutiny as those made for other government agencies.

Wednesday, the Zoo Society board voted to spend about $20,000 for a consultant to develop alternatives to the zoo's relationship with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. A report could be ready later this year.

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