Nov 8, 2021 - Business

Why the Nashville Zoo wants a city-funded parking garage

Nashville Zoo attendance
Nashville Zoo; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Over the last 24 years, visitors have flocked to the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere to pet the kangaroos, stand within a few feet of an Andean bear or play on the city's best jungle gym.

  • The zoo has become one of Nashville's top tourist magnets and has won industry awards for creative exhibits and financial management.
  • To help fuel more growth, Nashville Mayor John Cooper has proposed $15 million toward a new parking garage, but the idea has received substantial pushback in the Metro Council.

Why it matters: Zoo president and CEO Rick Schwartz tells Axios the new parking garage is the lynchpin of its ambitious $185 million expansion that will include a first-of-its-kind African river safari in which visitors will board a boat to float amongst animals.

  • Continued growth is impossible without the new 1,044-space parking structure, Schwartz says. And the zoo's plans for a fundraising campaign to help finance its expansion depend on the garage being built.

Context: As Nashville grapples with its tourism reputation, the family-friendly zoo in south Nashville provides an option completely independent from light beer and George Strait covers.

  • Between 2009 and 2019, the zoo's attendance more than doubled from 615,086 to over 1.2 million visitors, more than the combined attendance at Predators and Titans home games in 2019. Attendance dropped to 544,000 last year amidst the pandemic.
  • Schwartz tells Axios they expect 2 million visitors annually by 2027.
  • The zoo hasn't received Metro funding since Mayor Karl Dean committed a combined $26 million in infrastructure projects during his eight years in office, which ended in 2015.

What he's saying: On the zoo's busiest days, vehicles overwhelm its current parking lots. It's not uncommon for traffic jams to cram up busy Nolensville Pike.

  • "Without this parking garage we can't only not grow, we can't sustain what we're doing now," Schwartz says.

The other side: Some Metro Council members, led by Freddie O'Connell, questioned the large capital commitment for zoo parking.

  • O'Connell tells Axios he is "very pro-zoo." But he says he's "aghast" that Metro isn't spending more on bike lanes, sidewalks and bus routes.
  • He filed an amendment to reroute the funds Cooper earmarked for zoo parking to instead be spent on those modes of transportation.
  • A potential compromise would add $15 million to the capital spending plan for those priorities while keeping the zoo parking funding.

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