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Riverbanks Zoo and Garden seeking $80 million from Richland, Lexington counties for expansion project

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Published: May. 18, 2022 at 4:06 PM EDT|Updated: May. 20, 2022 at 8:58 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, a stable of the Midlands since 1974, is seeking funding for a new development project called Bridge to the Wild.

The zoo estimates says that this would cost $80 million, with the funds split between Richland and Lexington counties.

$45 million would come from Richland County taxpayers, and $35 million would come from Lexington County taxpayers, with the difference based on population.

Susan O’Cain, Riverbanks Zoo’s director of public relations, said this is a worthy investment.

“There are so people that can travel the world, but then there are people that can come to Riverbanks Zoo and Garden and see what the rest of the world has to offer,” she said.

If approved, the project would create a cohesive connection between the zoo and the garden with an expansion over the Saluda River and through the woods.

“This is really going to immerse visitors into nature and connect both sides of the river,” O’Cain said. “So not only animal habitats on the zoo side, we also are going to push some of those animal habitats over to the garden side as well.”

A primate forest would create a majestic jungle just over the Saluda River, similar to the animals’ native habitat in Southeast Asia. This would include animals such as orangutans and langurs.

Additional pieces of the puzzle include a new skyway tram system, primate forest and nature reserve, which would be home to some of the region’s native and endangered species.

A viewing deck overlooking the river would also offer guests views of the primate forest and surrounding habitats.

Increased amenities and upgrades to a tiger exhibit could also be included.

O’Cain said all of this could breathe new life into the zoo.

“COVID brought on a little hit to us, but we are back and we’re really eager about the future,” she said. “I’m excited about the new animals that will come in. We’ve talked about orangutans here for a long time.”

Richland and Lexington County residents will be paying more in taxes. On a $100,000 home, property taxes could rise by around $7.50 annually.

When asked if she thought that would a tough sell for the community given the state of the economy, O’Cain said, “I hope not.”

“I can see where they might be like, ‘Oh my goodness $7.50, but I really encourage at that point to take a step back and think about Riverbanks Zoo and Garden and the potential for growth here and the potential to add employment to the area, the potential to bring in new jobs,” she said.

Riverbanks Zoo and Garden bring in an estimated $148 million to the region annually. Zoo officials estimate that number could increase by $30 million with Bridge to the Wild.

“It’s exciting to know that we are really on the brink of driving Riverbanks Zoo and Garden and also driving tourism to the state of South Carolina and to the Midlands to increase vibrancy and sustainability in our communities,” O’Cain said.

The letter was initially delivered on May 3, 2022 to county administrators.
The letter was initially delivered on May 3, 2022 to county administrators.(Richland County Counil)

Another phase of Bridge to the Wild is already underway. Thanks to a donation from the Boyd Foundation, guests will be able to enjoy a new aquarium and reptile conservation center, which is expected to open this fall.

The Lexington County Council will have a first reading on the funding request on Tuesday.

The county spokesperson, Jessica Imbimbo, said in a statement, “Lexington County administration can provide more information once zoo officials have presented to council.”

Richland County Administrator Leonardo Brown said Richland County Council is expected to consider this request during its meeting on June 7.

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