If a year-round Niabi Zoo -- featuring a restaurant overlooking a new lion enclosure, a new penguins exhibit, and a savanna worthy of the zoo’s majestic giraffe herd -- doesn’t excite the imagination we don’t know what will.
And that's not all there is to tickle the fancy of Niabi Zoo fans in an ambitious 10-year master plan released last week for the Rock Island County taxpayer-owned animal preserve near Coal Valley.
Importantly, too, this shoot-for-the-stars road map for an evolving Niabi also represents the kind of aggressive vision taxpayers and community leaders were no doubt hoping for when they told a consulting firm in 2015 that they were reluctant to contribute to Niabi Zoo.
Back then, many Quad-Citians, including us, worried that the zoo -- which had lost the prestige and benefits of a key national accreditation in 2012 -- was in danger of becoming little more than a petting zoo.
The county board, which operates the zoo as the Rock Island County Forest Preserve Commission, was in a deep financial hole, and the zoo was reeling from staff turnover, the necessary but painful relocation of elephants Kathy Sh-Boom and Babe, and a feud between county leaders and the Niabi Zoological Society. At the same time, county board leaders also were taking fire for the damage done by decades of putting politics ahead of good government.
Now, however, the zoo's arrow is pointing up, thanks to efforts of a new citizen advisory board, and importantly, the election of reform-minded members to the county board.
Today's leaders hired Lee Jackson as director, and he, along with a top-notch animal curator and staff, went to work to attack the damage caused by years of benign neglect and questionable choices.
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Importantly, they also took steps to win back Niabi's American Zoos and Aquarium accreditation. We’ll know this fall whether they will pay off, but Kai Swanson, forest preserve commission president, is clearly optimistic.
"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 re-accreditation. Lee 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."
We trust ongoing changes at the zoo, its new focus on education and preservation, and this ambitious plan will help their cause dramatically. And like Swanson, we believe the master plan has the potential "to continue this shift from a sleepy, 1960s petting zoo to a real 21st-century science-education center.”
We also hope it will energize once-reluctant Quad-Cities leaders to support the nonprofit Niabi Zoological Foundation now being developed to create and execute a fundraising plan for the zoo.
The creation of an aggressive and successful philanthropic arm will directly impact how much of this grand scheme can be accomplished. Many of the projects it contains carry hefty price tags. For example, the proposed lion habitat and restaurant is estimated to cost $5.5 million. Fortunately, it isn't slated to open until 2025, which will give the new foundation time to do the necessary fundraising magic.
The success of the plan also rests on the zoo's ongoing viability and the revenues generated by zoo-goers, so the road map wisely offers fresh reasons to keep coming back to Niabi in the near term. For example, in the works is the addition of flamingos and prairie dogs, an information deck, shelters, a dinosaur play area for children, and audio-enhanced train rides.
Creating an aggressive vision, however bold and exciting, is only the first step of many, of course. There is much hard work ahead to see it through. But the payoff will be well worth it if accomplishes what Swanson, and we, hope it will. That is, “secure the future of the zoo for generations to come."