Zoo Atlanta looking into new digs

Facing financial constraints and competition from the soon-to-open Georgia Aquarium, Zoo Atlanta is seeking shelter — including debt relief and, possibly, a change of scenery.

“When the pandas first arrived [in 1999], things were looking pretty good,” says Zoo Atlanta President Dennis Kelly. “But 9/11 hurt us. We went into a recession. We have struggled, and for the past three years we have operated at essentially break-even.”

Zoo Atlanta hasn’t received public funding since 1993. On Oct. 17, Atlanta City Council approved a resolution — which described the zoo as suffering a “cash flow shortfall” and “operating deficits” — that will postpone payment on $252,150 that the zoo owes the city.

Kelly tells CL the zoo could have managed to pay the debt this year. Still, the Council’s postponement affords the zoo some breathing room ­-- and time to think about the future.

Kelly also says he expects zoo attendance to flatten next year when would-be visitors instead flock to the new Georgia Aquarium. He says the zoo is working on several improvements, including more covered, air-conditioned exhibits and better food service.

But the zoo’s ultimate fix could be a move to greener pastures.

Zoo Atlanta spokeswoman Susan Elliot says the 39-acre facility is looking into relocating to the 550-acre Fort McPherson property, a move that couldn’t happen until at least 2013. The military base is slated to close, and the zoo could occupy a portion of it.

The fort’s location, on the MARTA line between West End and East Point, offers advantages that the zoo’s current Grant Park digs can’t deliver: better access to public transportation, more parking spaces, and the ability to significantly expand.

Elliot cautions that the zoo has not yet decided whether to throw its hat into the ring of bidders vying for a piece of the Fort McPherson pie. “It’s all very preliminary,” she says.

Should the zoo pursue a move to the fort, there would be plenty of competition. Georgia State University has already expressed interest in the property; since it is a state entity, its bid would trump the zoo’s. And the city of Atlanta would like to redevelop the property as a mixed-use community

If Zoo Atlanta does decide to pursue a move, the next step would be to hire consultants to conduct market and transportation analyses, according to Elliot. While the zoo recently hired public affairs consultant Billy Linville, best known as Mayor Shirley Franklin’s chief political strategist, Elliot says Linville wasn’t hired to study a move to Fort McPherson. She would not elaborate on the details of his employment.

Linville could not be reached for comment.

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