By Maria Saporta
Friday, April 22, 2011
Zoo Atlanta has just received the largest philanthropic gift in its history — $5 million from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, part of the Robert W. Woodruff family of foundations.
The grant will go toward the zoo’s current $25.7 million capital campaign, the attraction’s first fundraising campaign in a dozen years.
The centerpiece of the campaign will be the building of a new amphibian and reptile complex to replace the 1960s-era reptile house that currently is in disrepair.
“The zoo’s plans are very exciting,” said Russ Hardin, president of the Whitehead Foundation. “We have gone from having one of the worst zoos in the country to one of the best. The reptile house is unfinished business in that transformation.”
For Zoo Atlanta CEO Raymond King, this campaign is all about contributing to Atlanta’s profile as a cultural tourism destination.
“We are a very good zoo, but we want to be a great zoo,” King said. “Atlanta deserves a zoo that’s worthy of this city’s place on the world map.”
The reptile complex was designed in the late 1950s and opened in 1962. “It was one of the few buildings that didn’t get redone when we rejuvenated the zoo,” King said. “A lot of the collections are not even on display. It’s one of the most depressing buildings we have.”
Plus, the existing reptile house has become an accreditation liability. Zoo Atlanta is thought to be a well-run zoo, but it has been told that it has to “deal with the reptile building because it is beyond its useful life,” King said.
The zoo made news last August when a rattlesnake escaped from an unsecured cage. It was ultimately found two days later across the street from the zoo.
“The day I think there’s a safety issue in that building, we will shut the building down,” King says. “We have just had a safety audit done.”
So far, including the Whitehead gift, Zoo Atlanta has raised $14.1 million toward its capital campaign. Its top corporate gift was $1 million from Southern Co./Georgia Power Co. The zoo’s board members have contributed $2 million, United Parcel Service Inc. has given $500,000, and there was $2.4 million remaining from the 2007 city of Atlanta bond issue that is going toward the new reptile attraction.
The honorary co-chairs of the campaign are Stephanie and Arthur Blank, and Cecelia and David Ratcliffe. The campaign’s co-chairs are Liz and Mark Lazarus, Danielle and Glen Rollins, and Lovette and Michael Russell.
King, a former SunTrust Banks Inc. executive who was named Zoo Atlanta’s CEO nearly a year ago, said the campaign is to build the first phase of a master plan that was completed years ago.
The problem, however, was that the zoo had lost money for 11 of the past 12 years, and it was important to get the attraction’s financial house in order.
One of the major reasons for its annual shortfall was its panda exhibit and its $1.1 million annual commitment to the Chinese government for panda conservation initiatives. But King’s predecessor, Dennis Kelly, successfully renegotiated a new five-year agreement that lowered the zoo’s annual panda conservation costs to $570,000.
Thanks to that savings and additional cost cutting, the zoo managed to eke out a small surplus in 2010 despite a difficult economy and bad weather that led to a lower than normal attendance with 675,000 visitors. (Attendance is up 30 percent so far this year.)
When King and his board realized that Zoo Atlanta could break even despite depressed attendance, they decided it was the right time for a fundraising campaign and increasing the zoo’s visibility in Atlanta’s philanthropic sector. The zoo receives no annual operating support from the city.
King said the goal is to finish raising the $25.7 million by early 2012. It will take 18 months to build the new amphibian and reptile complex, which will open in either the spring of 2013 or 2014.
As soon as that money is raised, King said the zoo immediately will try to raise another $10 million for a new veterinary facility. The current vet clinic is in the zoo’s former lawn-mower maintenance facility.
The zoo is Atlanta’s oldest cultural institution. In the early 1980s, Parade Magazine declared the zoo, then operated by the city, the worst in the country.
That led to a civic initiative to transform the zoo and create a privately run nonprofit — Zoo Atlanta.
“Today, we are one of the best small urban zoos in the country,” said King. It is one of only four U.S. zoos to have pandas.
The zoo is located in Grant Park on 35 acres, a relatively small footprint. As currently configured, it has a maximum capacity of about 900,000 annual visitors, and it usually attracts about 700,000.
Once the new master plan is fully implemented in multiple phases, King said the zoo’s capacity should double to 1.8 million annual visitors. “I personally think we have sufficient land,” he said.
King said the zoo will be able to generate enough cash flow for its $15 million annual operations budget when it is able to attract about 1 million visitors a year.
The new reptile complex will be on the northeast corner of the zoo’s property adjacent to the zoo’s new front door off Boulevard. It will cover about 1.5 acres and include boardwalks, animal habitats and visitor viewing areas along with 18,000 square feet of air-conditioned interior habitat exhibits, viewing areas, a theater and visitor comfort facilities. The interior space will double the size of the existing 9,000-square-foot reptile house.
It is a bit ironic that the first major project under King’s watch is the new reptile complex. “When I came, I had a major phobia of snakes,” he said. “I have come to appreciate the beauty of snakes.”
— Staff writer Lisa R. Schoolcraft contributed to this story.