A plan to buy land in north St. Louis County would more than quadruple the St. Louis Zoo’s space, opening it to possibilities such as saving more endangered animals and even letting visitors go on “safari” to watch animals graze.
The St. Louis Zoo Association, a private, nonprofit group that oversees fundraising, plans to buy 425 acres from the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562 for $7.1 million, officials announced Friday. The money came from two anonymous donors.
“Once we develop it, we’ll be in a much better position to care for animals and those who are in real danger of extinction,” said Jeffrey Bonner, the zoo’s president and CEO.
A due-diligence assessment will be conducted before the final sale. And what the zoo is able to do with the land depends on the level of public support it gets, Bonner said. People could see changes there within three to five years.
Last year, Missouri passed a law allowing the zoo to ask voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County to raise sales taxes by up to an eighth of 1 percent to fund the zoo’s conservation breeding and infrastructure needs. The law also allows the zoo to charge admission for newly built facilities.
Bonner said he anticipated charging visitors who don’t support it with sales tax. The zoo expects to decide soon whether to ask voters.
The property, near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, includes land occupied by Emerald Greens Golf Course. The Local 562 facilities are at 12385 Larimore Road.
The union has owned the property for nearly 50 years. It had been used primarily as a picnic and relaxation space for families. A pool on the property closed in the early ’90s, and an auditorium and other buildings are used for dances and weddings.
In July, Local 562 announced it would move its headquarters and training center to Earth City. The union will purchase and renovate the former ITT Technical Institute at 3640 Corporate Trail for its offices and health center and will build a new training center on land it bought at 3772 Corporate Center Drive.
The golf course will remain open for now.
“We’re proud to be here today because we know we’re leaving North County and the Spanish Lake area with a proud, proud owner,” said John O’Mara, the local union’s business manager and secretary-treasurer.
A large tract of land has been on the St. Louis Zoo’s wish list for a while, and officials had eyed this tract when revealing a 25-year master plan in 2016. That year, the zoo withdrew an offer to buy nearly 200 acres of Grant’s Farm from the Busch family, partly because of the family’s disagreement about the future of that attraction.
In 2012, the zoo bought 14 acres at the former Forest Park Hospital site. The zoo has a total of 106½ acres in St. Louis.
There are very few large parcels of land available in the county, said Joe Ambrose, president of the zoo association.
The North County property contains lakes, small ponds, utilities and perimeter fencing. The zoo will evaluate current structures for reuse, Bonner said.
He said the main concerns were carnivores, hoofstock, amphibians and birds. He pointed out that hoofed animals need lots of room, and there is no more room in the basement of the zoo’s herpetarium to raise hellbenders, which the zoo has helped save from extinction. The zoo’s cheetah population more than doubled with the birth of octuplets in November, he said.
The St. Louis Zoo will look at what institutions with similar facilities offer the public: The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has a partnership with a safari park that offers fishing and horseback adventures, and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park offers tethered balloon rides, Bonner pointed out.
He also said the new land would mean changes to the zoo in Forest Park: Visitors might see more and different species, more babies and more geriatric animals.
“This could be transformational for the zoo in many respects,” he said, “and of course, a fabulous new facility in and of itself.”
The Staenberg Group, which manages, leases and develops property, helped the St. Louis Zoo secure the land pro bono.