The Little Rock Zoo will play an important role in the post-pandemic revival of our community and will have an even more significant economic and social impact with an intelligent investment through the Rebuild the Rock initiative, a proposed one cent city sales tax to help rebuild infrastructure and invest in Little Rock’s future.
The zoo is already an enormously positive force in our community. The most recent expert assessment showed the zoo brought in $300 million of economic activity to our region in the past five years. Much of this comes from tourism as people from outside of the area travel to Little Rock to visit the zoo and contribute to the local economy in the process. They buy gas, food and shop at retail establishments all because of their trip to the zoo. But it is also an important quality-of-life feature that makes our area a more attractive place to locate a business or family.
The positive impact of the zoo is not just economic. It also provides a learning opportunity for school children than transcends what they learn from books and videos. Students see firsthand the complexity of our interconnectedness with the rest of the natural world, develop a broader appreciation for life, and build enthusiasm for some of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields that we desperately need to encourage.
Beyond the classroom, the zoo helps build social ties in families and our community. It’s one of the rare places where people of every economic and social strata, of all races and ethnicities interact. It’s a genuinely “happy place” where almost everyone leaves with a better feeling about themselves, their families, their friends, and our community.
Less obvious perhaps are some of the challenges the zoo faces because of an aging facility. Built in 1926, the zoo maintains several old WPA buildings and other old structures that require constant maintenance. This patchwork approach is costly and time consuming. WPA structures are in need of preservation, and other structures should be demolished to make way for modern zoological design that is attractive to guests and better for animals.
The Little Rock Zoo is currently accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which means it maintains high standards for animal care and conservation. However, if deferred maintenance issues are not quickly addressed these issues will continue to compound and make it impossible for the zoo to maintain this accreditation. Exhibits will have to close and animals will be moved to better zoos.
The biggest loss, however, could be a lost opportunity to make the Little Rock Zoo an even more significant factor in our economic development as we emerge into the post-pandemic world. While St. Louis, Memphis and Tulsa have announced major plans to upgrade their zoos, some folks locally are proposing to gut the zoo’s share of proceeds from the Rebuild the Rock project.
It is difficult to imagine a decision that could have more adverse consequences. A recent economic impact study by Intelligent Analytics and Modeling (IAMECON) and Zoo Advisors shows that investing $50 million in the zoo would return $659 million in economic activity in the community. This type of return on investment in the community makes good business sense and good common sense.
Recent polling shows that Little Rock voters overwhelmingly support replacing the expiring sales tax with a new one that would bring significant funding for improvements to the zoo and other needed projects. By even greater margins, these voters support elevating the zoo to the level of zoos in our competitor cities in the region. City leaders have heard arguments in favor and in opposition to full funding for the zoo, and it’s time for them to do everything necessary to support this vital local resource.
Editor’s note: Lisa Buehler is the board chair of the Arkansas Zoological Foundation and owner of Allegra & 360 Image Little Rock. The opinions expressed are those of the author.