After more than 40 years at the helm of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, president and CEO Palmer “Satch” Krantz will retire in June, the zoo announced Thursday.
Krantz joined the zoo in 1973 and became executive director three years later, at age 26, just a few years after graduating from Clemson University. With his help, what started as a grassroots effort to build a small petting zoo in the Midlands is today home to more than 2,000 animals.
Under Krantz, Riverbanks has undergone three major expansions and is now one of the largest mid-sized zoos in the country. It is South Carolina’s top tourist attraction, breaking its attendance record with more than 1.2 million visitors last year alone, and receiving numerous accolades through the years.
“Satch made the zoo,” former Columbia mayor Bob Coble said Thursday. “He was always very strong in fighting for funding for the zoo.
“He always had the community’s best interest at heart.”
But Krantz – the nation’s longest-serving zoo director – said the time feels right to retire. He will step down June 30.
“Being here 44 years, and turning 67 next Friday, I think it’s self-evident that it’s time (to retire),” Krantz said.
Krantz added it is an ideal time for Riverbanks to transition into new leadership, citing last year’s completion of a $36 million park expansion and development project, which included the opening of an expanded gift shop, Grizzly Ridge, Otter Run, Waterfall Junction and Sea Lion Landing.
Riverbanks is an economic force for the Columbia area, Krantz noted in a 2015 interview, generating more than $60 million in sales annually and creating more than 700 jobs. Economic figures for 2016 were not immediately available Thursday.
“Overall, it’s a pillar of the tourism community,” Andrea Mensink, director of communications for Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism said of the zoo.
Still, Riverbanks’ impact, and Krantz’s role in it, extends beyond Columbia, said Sen. John Courson, R-Richland.
“The zoo has helped not just Columbia but the state’s development,” Courson said.
“If one looks at South Carolina, tourism is in our top three industries. Having the zoo right in the center of the Palmetto State, it really promotes tourism and people coming to the Midlands,” Courson said. “It’s been an economic boon. And it’s just something that’s a great place to visit.”
Mary Howard, chair of Riverbanks Park Commission, called Krantz’s commitment to Riverbanks and the community “unwavering.”
“With Satch’s oversight, the zoo has become a cherished place where families and school children can experience and connect with the natural world ... He is a true visionary, a profound leader, and he will leave behind a legacy that is second to none,” she said in a news release.
Courson, too, said Krantz “has been able to promote the zoo more than any other human being I think could have.”
“Satch has really held his position with great dignity,” Courson said, “and has been able to raise the zoo to such a level that no one anticipated when the idea was first conceived.”
Krantz, a Columbia native, was more modest about his efforts.
“We’ve done a lot over the years. I don’t necessarily think it’s a legacy,” he said. “I’ve had a wonderful career and know how lucky I’ve been to work here at zoo and in Columbia.”
He added that he’s looking forward to not setting an alarm clock in the morning, traveling and “just taking it easy” in retirement.
By the numbers
Riverbanks Zoo & Garden
Visitors in 2016, a new record
Zoo and garden acreage
Year zoo opened
Year Botanical Garden opened
Animals in natural habitat exhibits
Size of most recent zoo expansion project, to include Grizzly Ridge, Otter Run and other features
SOURCES: www.riverbanks.org, staff reports