By Sarah Kuper
Elephant-sized trucks are moving mounds of dirt as work begins on the new entrance to the Birmingham Zoo and the Asian Passage exhibit.
By 2018, zoo patrons will enter through a two-story, windowed welcome center and step onto a plaza with interactive exhibits and a water feature. From there, guests will follow a trail connecting to all zoo exhibits.
An open green space planners are calling the meadow will serve as a place to picnic and as an area for hosting festivals and concerts, and it will be available for private events.
The Asian Passage exhibit will evolve from the existing predator building and the surrounding land. The orangutans will be moved from the primates building to an open air jungle gym enclosure and the tigers will have more space to prowl.
An elevated bridge will give visitors a bird’s eye view of the new habitats.
The new arrival experience and Asian Passage exhibit, are made possible by the “Renew the Zoo” $18 million capital campaign.
Campaign Chairman F. Dixon Brooke Jr. announced this month that the campaign has reached 85 percent of its goal. That’s $15.4 million.
“We were optimistic that the community would respond this way, but we still have more work to do,” he said.
In fact, zoo leadership’s first goal was $15 million. But Brooke looked at the plans and at the numbers and recommended stretching the goal to $18 million.
“Several ideas for the expansion were being deferred for another time, but we decided those should be a part of this campaign,” Brooke said.
Brooke said Auburn fans should be particularly excited about the new tiger habitat.
The money rolling in is due, in large part, to eager support from the Birmingham business community.
“The city of Birmingham showed its support, followed by several foundations, and that led the way for the business community to get involved. It’s a key cultural education attraction in our city,” Brooke said.
The Birmingham Zoo has been funded by a private/public partnership since 1999. The Birmingham mayor and City Council supported the expansion by contributing $7.5 million.
More than 575,000 visitors come to the zoo annually, and 35 percent of those visitors are from out of town. That’s $37 million in annual economic impact.
Once the new entry and exhibit are open, zoo leadership projects annual attendance will exceed 600,000 and even approach 1 million. Construction itself is adding $31 million to the area’s economy and the annual economic impact is predicted to be $46 million once projects are complete.
Leadership also expects the expansion will lead to the zoo’s supporting 530 to 550 jobs in the area.
Zoo Director Bill Foster said he believes all great cities have a great zoo, but the mission goes further than just a pretty exterior.
“Without the educational opportunities and the conservation work we do, the zoo would just be a menagerie. A zoo experience should teach the importance of empathy – whether for a bear or a mountain gorilla.”
Foster said another primary goal for the zoo is environmental responsibility. The new designs include alternative energy provisions such as solar panels, and the zoo will take advantage of the natural spring that used to feed the two ponds that are now filled in.