This may sound strange, but I agree with the recent editorial, "Now not the right time for upgrades at beloved zoo" (Nov. 15). That is why, at a recent appearance before Lexington County Council, I began by stating that the purpose of the presentation was to inform council of our existing and future capital needs and to seek council members' advice on the wisdom and timing of a bond issue. We have been communicating with members of Richland County Council about these same plans.
It now has been 12 years since Richland and Lexington county councils approved a bond issue for zoo and garden improvements. That bond issue, dubbed Zoo 2002, led to the development of the botanical garden entry road, botanical garden entrance, a new birdhouse and the Ndoki Forest complex for gorillas and elephants. As a result of those improvements, Riverbanks now attracts nearly one million visitors a year, an achievement recently covered by The State.
While the sheer number of visitors to Riverbanks is remarkable in itself, convincing local leaders that many of these visitors are tourists from all over the country is quite easy. We tell them: "Come to the zoo any day of the week, during any week of the year, and drive through our parking lot. The number of out-of-state cars will astound you."
This daily observation was recently reinforced in a study conducted by USC's College of Hospitality, Retail, and Sport Management. More than 5,000 individual zoo visitors were interviewed about travel expenses related to their trip to Riverbanks. During the study period, 44 percent of our visitors came from beyond a 50-mile radius of Richland and Lexington counties. More importantly, these visitors indicated that their primary reason for visiting Columbia was to visit Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. Ultimately, the study revealed that as a result of our visitors' travel-related expenses and the park's own operational spending, Riverbanks generates $60.8 million in sales at local businesses each year and creates 723 jobs throughout the Midlands.
The proposed $40 million plan began to take shape nearly seven years ago, one year after the last Zoo 2002 project was completed. This was nothing new. As responsible stewards of the taxpayers' money, the Riverbanks Park Commission and staff routinely have conducted planning sessions for the past 25 years. These sessions have helped Riverbanks achieve unprecedented success, now ranking as one of the top tourist attractions in South Carolina and one of the highest attended zoos in the South.
The new plan is quite different from those of the past, since half of the funds are to be allocated for either infrastructure needs or major repairs and renovations. Consider that the zoo's current entrance opened in 1988, when annual attendance averaged approximately 450,000. In 2008-09 approximately 800,000 guests entered through that same gate (another 200,000 entered through the garden entrance). Anyone who has stood in line for up to 45 minutes to enter the zoo on busy days or for special events will understand the need for a new entrance.
Additional funds also are needed to replace some of the zoo's original guest service facilities. Our main public restroom was constructed and opened in 1974 and has been used by 25 million people. This facility has reached a point where spending money on repairs is not financially prudent; nor is it the kind of amenity that our guests deserve.
This summer the commission and staff made perhaps the most difficult decision in Riverbanks' history when we decided to transport our two remaining sea lions to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and demolish the exhibit. For more than 20 years, we have regularly conducted visitor satisfaction surveys, and throughout that time the sea lion exhibit has ranked as the most popular among our many guests. But just like our other original facilities, the sea lion exhibit had reached the end of its useful life. We desperately want to bring it back.
Some have asked if the bond issue can be phased over time, rather than committing the entire $40 million all at once. The answer is a simple yes. In fact, that is just the kind of advice we are seeking from the two counties.
Since opening in 1974, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden has received tremendous support from the Midlands. This includes Richland and Lexington county councils, our many donors and guests and the 32,000 member households of the Riverbanks Society. This support has helped Riverbanks become an integral part of the fabric of our community, a major contributor to the local economy and an institution of national prominence. I have no doubt that by working together,, Riverbanks not only will become a magnet for tourism and tourism dollars but also will continue providing the quality of life embraced by the Midlands for many generations to come.