Plans call for the zoo to remain open year-round with the addition of warming centers for visitors and expanded indoor animal viewing. The Coal Valley zoo is currently open from April through October.
The master plan, prepared by CLR Design, is the result of an eight-month collaborative process involving several workshops and meetings with input from zoo staff, a community advisory board and county officials.
"This plan is hard evidence that Niabi takes seriously its calling to be a regional science education center now and into the future," said Kai Swanson, Rock Island County Forest Preserve Commission president. "If you don't lift your eyes above the horizon a little bit, you won't see what's coming and you won't be able to take advantage of it.
"I am really proud of the zoo and the leadership of (Zoo Director) Lee Jackson. They worked with one of the preeminent firms in the world, CLR, to continue this shift from a sleepy, 1960s petting zoo to a real 21st-century science-education center, which is what it is," Swanson said.
The zoo has not added any major new animal attractions since Passport to Africa was opened in 2007. In April, the zoo introduced two new monkey species for the first time at Niabi: a 9-year-old male Wolf's guenon named Azul and a 6-year-old male Allen's swamp monkey named Azizi.
The 10-year plan is broken into three phases and include replacing the train station, gift shop, and concession area with new amenities and reworking the front entrance to include a new lion habitat and restaurant. The zoo is situated on a 287-acre property, but currently only uses 46 acres.
According to the plan, flamingos and prairie dogs will be the first animals added in the spring of 2020 at a combined cost of $750,000. Penguins will not be added until 2025, at a cost of $750,000.
The lion habitat and a new, nearby primate forest will have overhead walking trails with netting for the lions and monkeys to pass through above zoo visitors.
"It's nice to think we can start with this big, beautiful lion enclosure and really take an active part in global species recovery efforts for lions," Swanson said. "But until we are there financially, we're going to have to do some of the other things like prairie dogs, penguins and flamingos to generate the interest and get people coming out."
The lion habitat and restaurant, which will have seating with views into the lion enclosure, are estimated to open in spring 2023 at a cost of $5.5 million.
Plans for phases 2 and 3 show a renovation of biodiversity hall and an expansion of the existing giraffe habitat by three times its size into a savanna of more than two acres.
Swanson said the savanna would allow the zoo's giraffes, a female named Twiga and a male named Kenya, more space to roam. The giraffes currently are kept apart from other animals, but adjacent to the zebra and ostrich habitat.
"The savanna would (include) zebras and complimentary species like ostriches and maybe some antelope," Swanson said. "It would be to connect the current giraffe habitat which is one of our crown jewels. They can interact with the other animals in a much broader space.
"We will look at (creating) some smaller exhibits to increase public attention, which will increase revenues we can then put back into other things. Then we can look at far bigger projects."
Short-term projects include a zoo information deck, new shelters, a fire pit with seating, a dino-dig area for children, and the addition of an audio-tour enhancement to the train ride providing descriptions of exhibits as the train passes by.
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Phase 1 of the plan is estimated to cost up to $15 million, but no costs have been released for phases 2 and 3.
"Phase one was the only part of the plan that was priced out in detail at this time because the further out you project the less reliable estimates become," Jackson said. "As significant portions of phase one become completed we will start looking at subsequent phases in detail with regard to design and cost.
"We are in the early stages of the development of a new Niabi Zoo Foundation that will take an active role as the nonprofit fundraising arm of the zoo. Once the new organization is in place, a fundraising plan will be developed," Jackson said.
Swanson said the creation of a zoo foundation will make a big difference and may replace the dormant Zoological Society. He said the society would likely transfer their current $1 million in funds to the foundation.
"We have been soliciting quiet donations to cover the filing fees," he said. "We have a pro-bono attorney, but the process takes a couple of months. A zoo cannot thrive if it does not have a philanthropic arm."
Swanson said a board of directors will be established to oversee the zoo foundation.
Jackson said the master plan is part of the application packet the zoo submitted to the AZA for reconsideration of their status.
Niabi lost its Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation in Sept. 2012 after inspectors noted issues with record-keeping, low staffing and a minimalist elephant exhibit. The zoo first earned accreditation in 2006.
"We've turned a major corner at Niabi and the pieces are coming in place," Swanson said. "A huge part of that is the AZA reaccreditation. Lee (Jackson) and some of his team will be in New Orleans in September and in the final stage of that process. We hope to have good news."
During the AZA's annual conference in September, a decision will be made whether Niabi earns its accreditation back. Swanson said if the zoo is reaccredited, it can do more with other zoos in terms of breeding programs and education.
"We don't have the revenues to do this," Swanson said of the master plan. "We don't have the funding to do this right now, but that's no reason not to plan.
"This will help us secure the future of the zoo for generations to come."