A RECENT VISIT to Riverbanks Zoo with my wife, Tanya, and our two sons reminded me of just how much of a jewel the Midlands’ wildlife park is.
Alexander and Christopher, 7 and 3 respectively, have been to Riverbanks a number of times — we once had a membership, which we renewed during our latest visit — but each trip brings a new joy. During this latest excursion in August, they were excited about seeing the young Komodo dragons that had arrived in May. Their only disappointment: They wished the juvenile Komodos were bigger.
The Komodos were just the start. The boys oohed and aahed their way through the park, enjoying their favorites, from the zebras to the elephants to the giraffes to the lions to the koalas. Oh, and the snakes — from the eastern diamondback rattler to the king cobra to the reticulated python. And the penguins. The grizzlies. Ostriches. Kangaroos.
Riverbanks has always been one of my favorite places, but I hadn’t been in a while. Our visit revived my long-standing appreciation of our Midlands zoo.
And I’m not its only fan.
When we traveled to Myrtle Beach later the same week, a woman we met talked about the great time she had had visiting the zoo. She giggled as she recalled the young giraffes nibbling on her toes while she stood on the observation deck.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the zoo and garden surpassed its all-time attendance record, hitting 1,029,492 visitors. The million mark used to be an anomaly, but despite the poor economy, the zoo has passed it in each of the past three years.
Riverbanks ranks fourth among zoos in North America in market penetration, trailing only Granby Zoo in Quebec, Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha and San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park. Its attendance easily outpaces that of the Charleston aquarium and Zoo Atlanta.
The zoo has been able to become and remain a top attraction because it has great leadership and staff (its long-time director Satch Krantz knows his stuff), great marketing strategy and — this can’t be underestimated — the support of Lexington and Richland county taxpayers.
And thanks to that public support, the zoo is about to undergo some much-needed improvements to make sure it continues bringing those million visitors not simply into its gates but into the greater Midlands, where many from outside the area will spend money for gas, food and other purchases.
I’ll have to admit, when I first heard about the zoo’s multi-million-dollar improvement plan, I was concerned. Could we afford it? Given the economy, could we afford anything, really? Our editorial board cautioned local governments against raising taxes during this continuing slump — even for our world-class zoo.
Things have gotten only slightly better, but Columbia and Richland County have OK’d some new projects and proposed others that, if they all go forward, would lead to massive public infrastructure spending totaling around $2 billion. Last week, I wrote a column raising questions about that spending, which includes raising $1 billion via a penny-on-the-dollar increase in the sales tax to fund buses, roads and other transportation projects as well as Columbia’s effort to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in water and sewer system upgrades by raising rates. There’s also a proposal to create two special tax districts to pay for projects in north Columbia and Innovista, USC’s research campus. Among the smaller projects are a proposed $22 million county soccer complex.
And then there’s the $32 million in upgrades for the zoo. That includes a new home for the sea lions, a children’s garden and a new front entrance.
Naturally, one of my questions is can we afford all this? Should we do it all at once?
I’m convinced we should say no or at least not now to some of these proposals, particularly the special tax districts.
But I must admit, if we have to raise property taxes for one thing, Lexington and Richland counties made the right call on the zoo. What better investment can we make than to ensure that this proven tourist draw and economic generator continues to work its magic? In order to fund the improvements at the wildlife park, folks in Lexington and Richland counties who own a $100,000 home would pay around $2 — $4 on a $200,000 home; that’s not much when you think of the return.
As we left the zoo that hot summer day, my youngest son, Christopher, who loves animals and collects toy figures by the dozens (he regularly stages animal parades that practically extend the length of our house), said: “I want real animals like at the zoo.”
My response was a calm, collected: THAT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN!
But I did promise him another trip to the zoo — soon. He agreed. Whew! Yet another reason to appreciate Riverbanks.
Email Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or email@example.com.