$40M in Riverbanks Zoo upgrades planned

Riverbanks Zoo plans to spend about $40 million to draw children to a new kid-friendly attraction, remake a popular feature, open an Asian-animal exhibit, and get visitors into the zoo more quickly.

Zoo director Satch Krantz on Tuesday laid out the most detailed plans yet for the long-delayed renovations, which would be the largest in the zoo's 35-year history.

Krantz told Lexington County Council the plans are not final, though the zoo commission has endorsed the concept. He did not ask the council for money now.

The zoo - the Midlands biggest tourist attraction and one of the most popular in South Carolina - has not formally requested the money from taxpayers in Lexington and Richland counties or Columbia, each of which contributes to zoo operations.

"It's going to be expensive," Krantz said. "It's going to be a roughly $40 million bond issue."

If the governing councils approve the full $40 million, the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000 would pay about $4 more yearly in taxes, Krantz said.

Zoo officials plan to present the ideas to the other councils and spell out a budget request within six months, the director said.

Construction would not begin before 2011, and each new feature would take one year to 1 1/2 years to complete, Krantz said.

Preliminary plans call for the first priority to be a $3.5 million to $4 million "children's garden," which would be constructed on about two acres near the botanical garden on the Lexington side of the Saluda River, Krantz said.

It would offer a small water park, interactive features and fairy houses, among other attractions.

Next on the list would be the renovation of the main zoo entrance off Greystone Boulevard, where visitors wait in long lines for major events like Halloween and Christmas presentations. Cars often back up up along I-126, creating a traffic hazard, Krantz said.

There are plans to replace the five ticket lines with many more turnstiles, box office kiosks to speed ticket purchases, small bathrooms at the entrance and an enlarged retail store inside the gates. That, too, is a $3.5 million to $4 million project, he said.

Reviving the popular sea lion exhibit - closed this year because it was outdated - will cost about $10 million, Krantz said. It will feature a large, glass front so visitors can watch the animals frolic underwater and have stadium seating during feeding times, which draw large crowds. The attraction will be designed to look like the California seacoast, where sea lions flock.

The most expensive feature will be a $15 million Asian-animals exhibit of such creatures as Komodo dragons, orangutans and Tasmanian devils.

Krantz said it will be built on three to four acres and be as large as the gorilla and elephant exhibits.

The new attractions should increase the zoo's annual attendance beyond 1 million visitors, but Krantz declined to be specific about a projected figure.

Its last three improvement projects each boosted attendance, especially the first few years after they opened, the director said.

The zoo already is near that figure.

When the fiscal year ended June 30, officials said 955,542 visitors had attended. That is equal to 12 sellouts at USC's Williams-Brice stadium, Krantz told council. That's also about 560,000 more visitors than the Charleston aquarium's, and about 160,000 more than at Zoo Atlanta, he said.

Zoo officials had hoped to request the money for the improvements during the summer of 2008 but held off because of a sagging economy. In May, Krantz said the zoo lacked the money for a new sea lion exhibit.

Although the projects involve a lot of money at a time when local governments' budgets are strained, council members Tuesday reacted favorably to Krantz's presentation.

The zoo has turned to taxpayers three times in 23 years with expansion requests that required government approval:

- A $6 million bond issue in 1986 paid for the current entrance, the animal farm, the reptile complex and the main restaurant.

- A $7 million bond issue in 1993 paid for the botanical garden, the bridge connecting it to older parts of the zoo and a veterinary hospital.

- A $15 million bond issue in 1997 paid for a new bird house, gorilla and elephant exhibits, the main entrance plaza, the road connecting U.S. 378 in West Columbia to the botanical garden and a parking lot and box office there.