It’s all happening at the zoo

Special to SunSpot

Long an also-ran in the Baltimore tourism market, the zoo has unveiled ambitious plans to change that, including a $60 million renovation and a new president, Elizabeth “Billie” Grieb. She recently discussed the nation’s third oldest zoo’s economic impact on the city and how it can compete with those pandas down the parkway.

The position of president is a new one for the zoo. Why create it now?

I think that there were several things that came together and told us that now was a good time to move to a new structure. One is that we are just about to start major construction on the new zoo project. The polar bear exhibit, which is going to feature underwater viewing, is scheduled to break ground this summer. So that is something that’s going to take up a lot of [Executive Director] Roger Birkel’s time. We really need Roger to bring his vision to bear as we go forward with the construction.

The other thing is that we’ve had, as everyone has, a very tough fiscal climate to deal with both in the city and at the state level. I don’t see this getting better. I think that the cultural institutions need to be able to be supported by the private community and not rely so heavily on public funds if we are going to be able to be successful.

Talking about the funding, the zoo is launching a $60 million renovation plan.

Well, I’m really not talking so much about that project. The fund raising is going extremely well [for that.] We have already raised $28 million from the state. We have $9 million from the city. And we’ve raised over $11 million privately, so we’ve got about $13 million more to go on the private fund raising, but we’ve been at it less than a year. I’m really looking more to the long range of operating support and endowment. We’ve really got to do something significant if Baltimore’s going to continue to have a wonderful zoo.

The $9 million from the city was down from $14 million originally. Did the state also cut back?

No, the state has not cut back.

Will the zoo starve with lessening governmental support?

No. The result is that we’re pinched, but we’re not in danger of closing. [But,] if you look very far down the road you can see that this funding is only going to get tighter.

What are some of the things that the $60 million renovation is going to include?

It’s going to be fabulous. One of the wonderful things about our zoo is that it’s 125 years old, but that also brings with it some infrastructure issues because the infrastructure has never really been upgraded. So a lot of the initial work will be things that aren’t very glamorous like new sewers, water lines and electrical. We don’t have any lights on the zoo grounds at night now, so we are forced to rent generators whenever we do a nighttime event.

The new exhibitory will all give better homes to animals that we have at the zoo already. Some of our really important animals are the polar bears and our Siberian tigers. The tigers are very endangered; there are only a couple of hundred left in the wild. They do quite well in zoos, and we’re quite lucky to have some. We’re going to give them a much better home and a much better visit for zoo patrons.

We are also going to have a place on the zoo grounds where you can eat indoors, so that if it’s raining or if it’s the middle of a Baltimore summer, you’ll be able to go indoors and be comfortable. We’re also redoing the whole center of the zoo so that visitors will begin their visit there, and they won’t have that long trek that everyone knows so well when you walk all the way from one end of the zoo to the other. That center will be a people place where we will have some water effects, this restaurant and other places where people can mingle that will also enable us to rent the facility out for conventions and other big groups.

How long will this all take?

This is huge and will take a number of years.

10 years?

No, but five.

Attendance figures have been flat for about the past decade. Are you projecting where you’d like to get that?

Well, we’d like to get it up. We’d like to get it to at least a million. We believe that by creating the new environment at the zoo we will become a tourist destination. We do have some challenges because people come as far as the Inner Harbor, and they’re less apt to venture farther into the city. Working together with the city and doing more things like we are already doing, like a shuttle from the harbor to the zoo, we expect that visitors will make the effort to come because there will be something really exciting to see.

Do you have any idea of what the zoo’s economic impact is on the city?

There has been a study. November of 1996 there was a study done. That’s something that we should probably look at again. We employ 150 people. We employ a lot of seasonal workers. Most of our employees do come from the city. [In terms of] the revenues from the tourists, the average zoo visit is several hours, so if we can become a destination it would extend the visitor’s overall stay in Baltimore probably by an additional day.

While you are no stranger to the zoo, having served on its board for several years, you are coming from a career as an attorney with Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe. Seems like there should be a joke there about lawyers and monkeys or something.

I’ve heard them all in the last couple of weeks.

Is there something about the law that’s going to help you in your new position?

I am a business lawyer. I’ve done a lot of financing. I’ve helped a lot of businesses. So, I think that certainly some of my legal skills will be helpful. But I think that my real strength will be my strong finance capability and also the strong contacts I’ve made in the community.

How will you compete with the pandas?

It’s impossible to compete with the pandas. The National Zoo, of course, is owned by the Smithsonian and funded by the federal government. It’s in a different league in terms of its financial strength. However, it’s also a very different organization. We have the best children’s zoo in the country. It wins award after award. What the visitors say is that while a visit to the National Zoo is more scientific, our zoo is a very friendly, children education-oriented visit. People don’t find it difficult to distinguish between our zoo and the one in Washington. Of course, everyone would love to get pandas.

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