The Gulf Shores City Council unanimously approved appropriating a one-time grant of $1 million to the Zoo Foundation at a special-called council meeting Thursday. The money will be used to help the Zoo Foundation secure $26.26 million in tax exempt financing for the purpose of relocating from its present location to a new facility on 25 acres off County Road 6 East.
City Administrator Steve Griffin said the present agreement had been in the works for a year and a half.
“The zoo is located on about seven acres of property that are uplands surrounded by wetlands,” Griffin said. “Over the years we’ve had storm surge and hurricanes, and this is not at all an ideal place for a zoo and the animals regularly have to be relocated.”
The land on Co. Rd. 6 was donated to the zoo for the purpose of a zoo relocation and expansion in 2010. The money from the city is proposed to be transferred at the conclusion of the new facilitiy’s construction to be used as operational reserves. It is a condition of the bond issuance scheduled in January 2018.
“They have gotten financing through an international company,” Griffin said. “They’re asking for council consideration for this $1 million grant which would be used in conjunction with the $26.26 million zoo project as operating reserves. It would be in an account not to be used during the construction project. Some of the urgency today is because they’ve got bids in hand to start construction of the zoo. If they can get started in January, they can hope to be open June 2019.”
Griffin went on to say the council would have no further ongoing relationship with the zoo and that the zoo had plans to hire a new chief financial officer as well as a construction management company.
The Baldwin County Commission gave its assent to the move during its Dec. 19 meeting, with all commissioners voting for the resolution.
Commissioner Tucker Dorsey had expressed concerns about the long-term viability of the zoo’s expansion plan and worried a failure could potentially put the City of Gulf Shores and Baldwin County on the hook.
“My concerns are not about the facility you’re building,” Dorsey said. “My concerns are really 8 to 10 years down the road because if it doesn’t work, I don’t want the county commission to be in the zoo business.”
Dorsey said despite his misgivings, he felt the need to vote for the resolution.
“While I still have some concerns, they aren’t borne by the county itself,” Dorsey said. “I certainly would like to be a supporter of your project. I’ll waive my concerns and send it to another county commissioner to potentially have to deal with 8 to 10 years down the road.”
Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said any lendor requires collateral or “skin in the game” before it makes an investment. This company, being international and unfamiliar with Gulf Shores, is using the grant as a symbolic recognition of the zoo’s importance to the city.
Councilman Dr. Jason Dyken said the city has no plans of running the zoo in the future.
“This is a private, non-profit foundation and organization running a facility that’s a major benefit to the city for the tourists,” Dyken said. “We are aware of the importance of that facility to our community and it’s future. We also benefit from that as a city financially through sales tax dollars.”
Craft acknowledged that the zoo is extremely fragile in the location it’s in environmentally.
“It’s not what it could be, and not what it should be,” Craft said. “So, the opportunity we have is a big venture. It’s a big deal for them to be able to manage the expenses and the revenue and operations to make the debt service. They know that; we know that and they’re going to have to work really hard to make that happen.”
There will be a second chance for citizen input at a public hearing scheduled for Jan. 15.
After the vote, Craft told representatives from the zoo that they had what they need to “deliver the dream,” and quickly added “on budget.”