Zoo’s Savanna Hall project could be forced to halt construction
By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Sept. 13, 2019
Zoo Atlanta’s transformation of Savanna Hall could come to a halt in a matter of days due to inaction on the part of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority.
Savanna Hall – the former home of the Cyclorama painting – is part of a $55 million project to create a unique event space that will overlook the new and expanded natural habitats for elephants and giraffes at the zoo.
Because the project involves renovating the former Cyclorama building, Zoo Atlanta has secured $11.2 million in federal and state historic tax credits. That is in addition to the $48 million Zoo Atlanta has raised from its philanthropic campaign to transform Savanna Hall and build a new African Savanna to expand its space for giraffes, elephants and other species.
But the Recreation Authority board needs to sign off on the historic tax credits so that Zoo Atlanta can secure $13 million in project financing, which bridges the time gap between construction expenses and the collection of historic tax credits and multi-year charitable pledges.
Raymond King, Zoo Atlanta’s president and CEO, said in an interview this should be a time of celebration with the opening of the all-new African Savanna.
“Instead, my team and I find ourselves unnecessarily losing sleep over whether we can claim the required funding Zoo Atlanta has worked so hard to earn,” King said. “It is critical that in the next few days, we receive [Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority] AFCRA approval, or at least a committed date for such approval to occur shortly thereafter, or we will be forced to halt construction on Savanna Hall, putting our 2019 completion date at risk and thus placing our historic tax credits in jeopardy.”
King said the zoo has been asking AFCRA to convene a specially-called meeting for weeks, even in advance of turning over the legal documents on Aug. 27.
“All parties involved have known and approved of this transaction since the fall of 2017,” King said. “As we agreed, we delivered the authority all documents for review two weeks in advance of what we understood would be an authority board meeting on Sept 10 or 11. No board meeting has even been scheduled, and we have been unable to secure any commitment or timeline for such a meeting despite multiple requests.”
According to the AFCRA website, an executive committee meeting is scheduled on Oct. 28 and the next board meeting is set for Nov. 8 – long after Zoo Atlanta’s time frame to be able to continue construction without interruption.
King said Savanna Hall actually is supposed to be completed in November so that the administrative offices of Zoo Atlanta can move into their new space in December.
Zoo Atlanta also has plans to have a soft opening in January for donor and promotional events. Savanna Hall already has booked several private events in the facility starting in February.
As of press time, AFCRA had not responded to several attempts to reach it for comment.
It has been a busy time for Zoo Atlanta and the city’s cultural institutions due to a domino effect that was triggered in 2014 when Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker donated $10 million to care for the historic Cyclorama painting if it were moved to the Atlanta History Center.
At that time, Zoo Atlanta was in danger of losing its two female elephants unless it expanded their habitat so at least one more elephant could be added to the herd, as required by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the accrediting body.
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. Then it would be able to turn the historic Cyclorama building into Savanna Hall, a special event space that would benefit the tourism and convention industry while generating new revenue for the zoo.
Initially, Zoo Atlanta launched a $38 million campaign, buoyed by an unprecedented $20 million grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation. Eventually, Zoo Atlanta raised $48 million, which helped cover increased project costs. The $11.2 million historic tax credits actually will end up with a net value of $7 million for a total project financing of $55 million.
Savanna Hall will be a four-level facility totaling 57,000 square feet – not including the terraces. The event space will be on the third and fourth floors with estimated seating for at least 625 people (750 standing).
The only new part of the building’s exterior will be the back, where expansive windows and the two terraces will provide panoramic views of the animal habitats. 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 is a private nonprofit organization founded in 1985 after the then-city-owned Atlanta’s zoo was declared to be one of the worst in the nation. The city continues to own the land, and it has given AFCRA its leasehold interest. The public-private partnership was purposefully structured so the authority would serve as Zoo Atlanta’s landlord while the private, nonprofit entity would operate the zoo independently under a 50-year operating agreement.
King said the “historic transformation of Zoo Atlanta is in everyone’s best interest” – especially the government of Atlanta, because it because it is a city-owned asset.
AFCRA is a city-county authority with nine board members – six appointed by the city and three by the county. Its executive director is Kerry Stewart, who was named to the post a year ago.