By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Oct. 26, 2018
Zoo Atlanta’s Savanna Hall – the former home of the Cyclorama painting – is being transformed into a unique event space that will overlook the new and expanded natural habitats for elephants and giraffes.
“There will be two terrace levels with floor-to-ceiling glass,” said Raymond King, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta. “You literally will be on top of the animal exhibits. It’s going to be an incredible experience.”
Zoo Atlanta released the latest renderings of Savanna Hall to the Atlanta Business Chronicle and provided an update on the schedule and scope of the project that is fully under construction.
“We originally had hoped to open it all in the spring of 2019,” said King, but there was an eight month delay getting started because of issues related to the City of Atlanta’s adjacent underground parking deck that faced a tree appeal and a lawsuit. King said they couldn’t start the Savanna Hall or zoo expansion until they knew the parking deck would be built.
“The exhibit will open in the summer of 2019 instead of spring,” King said. “Our understanding is that the parking facility will be done at about the same time. The event venue will not be done until the end of 2019 with a soft opening in January 2020. We will start renting it out in February 2020. We already have two events booked.”
That will culminate an amazing series of cultural moves that started when Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker donated $10 million to care for the Cyclorama painting if it were moved to the Atlanta History Center.
At the same time, Zoo Atlanta was endanger of losing its two female elephants unless it expanded their habitat so at least one more elephant could be added to the herd.
By moving the painting to the History Center, the zoo was able to add about 5 acres (for a total of 45) and expand its African Savanna, and it could turn the Cyclorama building into Savanna Hall, an event space that would generate new revenue.
Even Oakland Cemetery benefited by getting the History Center’s greenhouse, which had to be relocated to make room for the new home of the Cyclorama Civil War painting.
It also means the expanded zoo will have capacity for up to seven elephants, including a separate section for a male elephant – which will make it possible for breeding. “We are having ongoing talks to expand the herd after our girls get used to their new environment,” King said.
All those moves and improvements required money. Zoo Atlanta launched a $38 million campaign and raised $42.5 million. But preserving the exterior of the Cyclorama building ended up costing more than expected. The project now is closer to $50 million, including some enhancements.
“We preserved most of the historic elements of the building so we were able to get $7 million in historic tax credits, and we will have a more attractive venue,” King said. “We took over a very old building, and there were a lot of challenges. We are essentially building a structure within a structure.”
The four-level facility will total 57,000 square feet not including the terraces. The event space will be on the third and fourth floor with seating for 625 people (750 standing). The only new part of the building’s exterior will be the back, where the two terraces will provide views of the animal habitats.
“This will really be an asset to Atlanta,” King said. “There’s no other venue like this in the Southeast. Certainly the trend is to create venues that have a unique character to them. This one will be animal centric.”
Savanna Hall will have two kitchens, including a kosher kitchen that will fill a need in Atlanta. Proof of the Pudding will be the caterer. Zoo Atlanta also will have a new company managing its concessions within the zoo, SSA (Systems Services of America).
Zoo Atlanta is one of the smaller zoos in a major city. But King is not complaining or looking to significantly expand the zoo’s footprint.
“We are a special, more intimate zoo because of our size,” King said. “It is compact and shaded. And you can see all the animals you would see in a larger zoo.”
It’s size also makes it easier to maintain – physically and financially.
From 2000 to 2009, the zoo lost money every year with one exception.
“That’s essentially when the Pandas got here. That put a real strain on our budget,” King said. A couple of years ago, Zoo Atlanta renewed its agreement with the Chinese government to keep the pandas for another 10 years. It is only one of four U.S. zoos with a panda exhibit.
“We’ve been in the black since I got here in 2010. But we will lose money this year because of the construction, which was planned,” King said. “The event venue is a whole new business for us. It’s going to make us even more sustainable than we’ve been.”
In addition to Savanna Hall, the project will involve the demolition of the zoo’s administration building. That area will be turned into a welcoming plaza with trees and a water feature. It will make the zoo’s entrance much more visible and inviting.
King said the zoo’s staff will have to move to temporary quarters within the property for about three months next fall until its office space in the new hall is finished.
King said it has been a busy, exhausting and exciting time for him and the zoo’s staff.
“It’s very rewarding – especially when we get to the other side of this mountain,” King said. “Effectively one-third of the zoo will be a new zoo.”
King has no regrets leaving a banking career to become a zoo administrator, and he does not know what the future will bring.
“I certainly want to see this thing through. In 2020, I will have been here 10 years. I will be 55. That’s a pivot point,” King said, adding that doesn’t mean he will leave. “We will still have two-thirds of the zoo to improve.”