Non-CommittalBy ANTHONY WARREN,
State officials are non-committal on plans to move the Jackson Zoo to the golf course at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park, mainly because they don’t know enough about the plans.
Meanwhile, zoo officials don’t have any concrete plans, as they’re still raising money so they can be drawn up.
“We need $350,000 to do the study. Once we have that in place, then part of the plan would be to meet officially with the state,” Zoo Executive Director Beth Poff said.
Recently, the Jackson Zoological Society voted to study moving the zoo to the park’s nine-hole golf course in Northeast Jackson.
The golf course, which is located on Lakeland Drive, is the least used of the state’s four public courses and is the only nine-hole course.
The course is owned by the state and managed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP).
Any decision to allow the move would have to be signed off on by the department and its five-member board of commissioners.
“I’m definitely not opposed to it, but I can’t say I support it until I see all the facts,” MDWFP Commissioner Billy Mounger said.
Mounger said the move could be a win-win for the zoo and the state, citing the fact that the zoo would be in a better location, next to the Mississippi Children’s Museum and Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.
Also, he said the zoo could potentially generate more revenue than the golf course, which doesn’t earn enough money to be profitable.
“They probably never have enough players to make them profitable,” he said, referring to the state-owned courses. “All the state golf courses are losing money.”
Commissioners are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Mississippi Senate. One member each represents the state’s five old Congressional districts. Members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Mississippi Senate. One commissioner each represents the state’s five old Congressional districts as they existed prior to the year 2000. Members serve five-year terms.
In March, the zoo board voted to begin studying moving the zoo to the golf course.
MDWFP has had two meetings with the society, one was a general discussion of the idea, and the second was to find out whether MDWFP was opposed to it, Mounger said.
“The department said the golf course would continue to operate as a golf course, but if you come up with a proposal, we’ll look at it,” Mounger said.
Zoo officials are hoping to develop 25 of the course’s 30 acres, and would likely build the new park in phases.
The 13-member board made the decision, citing declining attendance, aging structures and budget cuts.
The decision also came after private consultants determined that the zoo would have to move to survive.
In 2016, the society brought on Schultz and Williams to determine whether donors would support a $15 million capital campaign to fund park improvements.
The year prior, the society had drawn up a zoo master plan, which included some $100 million in park renovations, including adding an indoor rainforest exhibit and a new adventure zone for children.
According to consultants, “100 percent of the people interviewed had concerns about donating to the zoo at its current location.”
Since 2003, the number of visitors has dropped by nearly half, from 180,000 to 100,100 in fiscal year 2017.
With fewer visitors and contributions, revenues have dropped dramatically. Zoo staff has been cut to bare bones, and some popular exhibits, including the elephants, were shipped to another zoo.
The zoo is located at 2018 W. Capitol Street, in West Jackson.
Under its current agreement, zoo property is owned by the city of Jackson, while the majority of the park’s animals are owned by the society.
The park is surrounded by blight and located in what is one of the most dangerous areas in the capital city.
By comparison, the LeFleur site is near the I-55 North/Lakeland Drive interchange, and is part of the LeFleur Museum District.
The district includes the children’s museum, the natural science museum, the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Museum and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
The interstate averages around 126,000 vehicles a day, while Lakeland east of the interstate averages between 50,000 and 60,000 a day.
West Capitol, on the other hand, averages just 8,500 motorists daily.
The LeFleur course averages about 9,000 rounds of golf a year, according to MDWFP spokesman Brad Rogers.
Most 18-hole courses in the area average between 20,000 and 35,000 rounds, according to Randy Watkins, president and CEO of the Randy Watkins Golf Group.
Watkins, who serves as a consultant for the LeFleur course, helped restore the facility in 2012 after the course fell into disrepair under its previous management firm.
Michael Bolden, director of administrative services for the wildlife department, wasn’t sure if any of the state golf courses break even.
“In a nutshell, golf is an amenity at a (few) of our state parks,” he said. “Do they break even? I don’t know that we have ever broken even at a golf course.”