Zoo announces major additions led by bears, monkeys

Metro, private-sector funds to fuel updates that also include vet hospital, entry plaza

Nashville Zoo officials announced today plans for major multi-year and multi-phase animal and infrastructure additions — with South American bears and monkeys highlighting the initial efforts — to be fueled by an injection of Metro and private donor monies, with commitments to date totaling $28 million.

The funds raised include a recently approved $10 million allotment in Metro’s 2015 capital spending budget, as well as $5 million from the 2014 capital spending plan. The city’s $10 million investment will be applied to infrastructure improvements and is contingent upon the ability of the zoo, Nashville’s most visited cultural attraction, to match the money with privately raised funds.

Long-term, zoo officials will focus on a comprehensive campaign, scheduled to run through 2020, to secure private-sector support to undertake exhibits for gorillas, lions, giant otters, cheetahs, coatimundi, and penguins, among others, as well as a guest tram system, restaurants and gift shops and other amenities.

"The difference between our [future] penguin exhibit and other penguin exhibits is that ours will be interactive," zoo President Rick Schwartz said. "The public will be able to walk in and be in the room with them."

Flanked by Mayor Karl Dean, Metro officials and zoo board members, Schwartz (pictured) announced work will soon begin on a $43 million Phase I that includes the following:

• An entry plaza (seen in image below) slated to accommodate growing membership and general attendance (the zoo is targeting a September groundbreaking);

• New exhibits featuring Andean bears and spider monkeys (both species of which are found in South America and with the zoo targeting September 2015 openings) and, after that, penguins and giant river otters;

• A veterinary hospital to accommodate the housing of existing animals and soon-to-be-received animals.

• Infrastructure improvements including expanded parking (the facility currently has 1,250 spaces with 2,000 the goal), roads and walkways.

The $117 million Phase II will focus on African animals. Its effort is expected to run from approximately 2017 to 2020.

Today’s announcement comes as the zoo recently announced it has added two baby komodo dragons, now on exhibit in the Unseen New World and on loan from the Los Angeles Zoo. (Read more here.)

“The zoo appreciates this public-private partnership with Metro and the support of Mayor Dean’s administration and the Metro Council, who have embraced our mission and demonstrated a serious commitment,” Schwartz said. “It is clear that Nashville’s leaders recognize the zoo’s contribution to our community: As a key entity promoting progress and preservation, and as a vital educational resource and cultural destination with a significant economic impact.”

Schwartz said the animal hospital originally  built in 1989 (when the facility operated as Grassmere Wildlife Park and housed animals indigenous to Tennessee) is now “too small” and cannot accommodate the type high-profile animals the zoo ha currently and will get.

Robin Patton, Nashville Zoo board chair, said the exotic wildlife park’s infrastructure needs “massive improvements.”

“With the city's investment, we can move forward with our plans for expansion and remain Nashville's No. 1 tourist attraction,” Patton said. “We are incredibly grateful to all of Nashville for the community-wide support enabling us to eliminate debt and operate in a financially sound manner. Without the commitment of our citizens as well as the mayor and Metro Council, the Nashville Zoo would not be able to flourish as it has over the last 15 years.”

Schwartz said the goal is to get annual zoo attendance (which was about 775,000 in 2013) to 1.2 million visitors.

"A world-class zoo for a world-class city, I believe, will help the economy," he said. "I believe it will help people stay here longer."

Nashville Zoo sits on 188 acres that are owned by the Metro Parks and Recreation Department. About 82 acres have been developed.