Roger Birkel believes he couldn't have chosen a better time to become director of the Baltimore Zoo. He may be right. Even with serious infrastructure problems that require replacing hundred-year-old pipes, the zoo's outlook is bright. Give predecessor Brian Rutledge credit. It is Mr. Birkel's task to take the zoo to the next level, one that will determine its viability for generations of future Baltimoreans.
Chartered in 1876, the Baltimore Zoo is the third oldest in the country and looked like it 10 years ago. Since then, several of the old exhibits have been replaced by spacious, modern habitats that are more comfortable for the animals and appear more realistic to visitors. The children's zoo, featuring domestic animals, is one of the finest in the country. The newest exhibit, a chimpanzee house that looks like part of a jungle overgrown with bamboo, opens in August.
Such innovations boosted the Baltimore Zoo's attendance to a record 611,000 visitors last year. But Mr. Birkel comes from the St. Louis Zoo, which averages 2.7 million visitors. He knows Baltimore can do better. Even though he's only been in town two months, Mr. Birkel has some good ideas to increase attendance. For example, the new director says the zoo ought to be considered part of the Inner Harbor experience for out of town tourists.
If a family has driven two or three hours to visit the Inner Harbor, why not spend another 10 minutes to get to the zoo? Why not provide shuttle service to the zoo and leave the driving to someone else? That would be good for conventioneers who often don't have access to a car.
Of course, a zoo that attracts the convention crowd has to have more to offer. One of Mr. Birkel's last assignments at the St. Louis Zoo was heading the design and construction team for The Living World, a $18 million education and visitor's center. He envisions a similar, though less costly, welcome center here -- an auditorium for lectures or movies, display halls for exhibits on conservation, an indoor dining area. Its rooms could be rented for corporate meetings, weddings, bar mitzvahs. It could bring in additional income.
Mr. Birkel knows replacing the Victorian-age water pipes must be included in whatever renovation plans come next. It's also good to hear Mr. Birkel say he wants to get Baltimore's diverse communities to think more of the zoo as a unifying place where they can all share an experience. Getting people to feel good about the zoo is essential to securing their support.