CEO of California zoo outlines ambitious masterplan after African expansion doubles visitor numbers

by Tom Anstey | 07 Aug 2016
My personal opinion is at times we go into too much detail when it comes to masterplans. I’ve seen masterplans that have quite a bit of detail on projects five or six years out and I’ve never seen it pan out that way.
– Scott Barton, Fresno Chaffee Zoo CEO and director

Since opening its US$57m (€51.5m, £43.7m) African Adventure, California’s Fresno Chaffee Zoo has experienced a 40 per cent upturn in attendance.

Funded mainly by a levy a tax to help support new zoo projects and programmes, the 13-acre (57,000sq m) project offers a modern home for a number of species, including African elephants, lions, cheetahs, wildebeest, giraffes, ostrich, springbok and more.

“It’s by far the largest project we’ve done both in footprint size and cost,” the zoo's CEO and director Scott Barton told CLAD. “What’s been remarkable is the impact it’s had. Our attendance from when it opened is about 40 per cent up on the previous year. We’re almost a year in now and still seeing very strong numbers. Because our summers get very hot, March, April and May are our busiest months and in each of those months we passed 100,000 guests – something we’ve only managed to do twice previously in the zoo’s 87-year history.”

The zoo is now in the next stages of expanding, entering the second phase of development in African Adventure with the addition of a yet-to-be-named African-themed river expansion. In the new area by Seattle-based wildlife design experts Studio Hanson Roberts, visitors will get up close and personal with Nile hippos, crocodiles and a selection of still-to-be-determined animals.

“We might have some primates, we expect fish in the tanks with the hippos and crocodiles, likely we’ll also have birds involved,” said Barton. “We want to give a look into an African river environment and that’s what the expansion will reflect.”

The second phase of development is expected to cost between US$10m (€9m, £7.7m) and US$20m (€18m, £15.4m), with those costs finalised when the scope of the expansion is determined.

While its most significant development, African Adventure is just part of the zoo’s masterplan, which can be realised thanks to public and state support.

“One of the fortunate things, and one of the things that really turned around the zoo, was in 2004 when the community voted for the sales tax,” said Barton. “That brings in a guaranteed US$10m (€9m, £7.7m) to US$12m (€10.8m, £9.2m) a year – and two-thirds of that money has to be used for capital projects – new exhibits and improvements.”

The tax levy, which was renewed for another decade in 2014, has given the zoo license to expand its horizons and create its development masterplan. This includes developing a new Asian area modelled on Asian forest and ruins, with tigers, sloths, bears and orangutans among its inhabitants. In addition there are plans for a South American area, while new a new animal commissary and education ambassador animal facility are also in the works.

The zoo’s main entrance will also be relocated, which Barton says is essential thanks to a huge surge in visitor numbers over the past two decades.

"I came in 2009 and in the 20 years before that the zoo’s attendance varied between 350,000-450,000 guests. Right now in 2016 we’re tracking towards a million guests,” he said.

“Our entrance was designed for about 500,000 guests. We’d like to expand and relocate it more central to the zoo to improve flow. Right now it comes in on one side, far away from our African areas. It would provide easier parking and we’d build it to have our guest services, security and administration offices which are currently spread through the grounds. It will definitely help with traffic patterns.”

The zoo’s newest project, developed by its in-house team at a modest US$120,000 (€108,000, £92,000), repurposes its former antelope and zebra enclosures into a large walkthrough space for its kangaroos and other Australian animals.

“We’re just finishing that project and will be moving the animals in a couple of weeks,” said Barton. “We added in new grass, a pathway and new fencing so it was relatively straightforward because the area previously held animals. The walkthrough is a little bit of a new experience for us – we’re certainly experimenting – but if the demand for the attraction is there visitors will be able to walk through daily.”

The zoo’s masterplan was first conceptualised in 2004 but has been reworked once before and is set to be looked at again this year.

“My personal opinion is at times we go into too much detail when it comes to masterplans,” said Barton. “I’ve seen masterplans that have quite a bit of detail on projects five or six years out and I’ve never seen it pan out that way. Our masterplan is really very general – a South American area, an Asian area, an African area, major pathways, certainly safety, exits, utility etc. But it's much more of a general concept than a defined plan. We prefer that approach.”

Talking about the design process for new exhibits, Barton revealed the zoo uses a very collaborative approach, including all of its staff in the process should they want to participate.

“We sit down with them and a number of members of our team and we set up the meetings with a lot of chairs,” he said. “The entire staff is invited to come and sit in and watch the process as their time allows. It’s a very active discussion as we talk about how species will interact with exhibits and how things will operate.”

Barton also said the zoo would be taking advantage of the tax levy and investing constantly to keep zoo attendances rising.

“We want to make the zoo a great space for all ages,” he said. “We’re starting to see a really nice diversity of guests and we’re only an hour away from Yosemite National Park, which welcomes 4 million visitors a year from all over the world. We’re looking at marketing more to the people visiting the park. There’s lots ahead for us.”

Fresno Chaffee  Zoo  Australia  African Adventure  California  Scott Barton  African River  Tax Levy  Aquarium 
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Since opening its US$57m (€51.5m, £43.7m) African Adventure, California’s Fresno Chaffee Zoo has experienced a 40 per cent upturn in attendance. Funded mainly by a levy a tax to help support new zoo projects and programmes, the 13-acre (57,000sq m) project offers a modern home for a number of species, including African elephants, lions, cheetahs, wildebeest, giraffes, ostrich, springbok and more. “It’s by far the largest project we’ve done both
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Since African Adventure opened, the zoo has experienced a 40 per cent upswing in attendance / Fresno Chaffee Zoo
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