Zoo Atlanta is closer to realizing a planned transformation with the announcement Friday of a $20 million matching gift from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.
The money would go toward what the zoo calls a “grand new view,” turning the 1921 Cyclorama building into a new special events center, reshaping the entrance plaza and redesigning the African savannah exhibit.
The gift would match any money raised by the zoo, up to $20 million.
“It’s only as powerful as the gifts that come along to match it,” said Zoo Atlanta president and CEO Raymond King. “If we only raise $2 million, then it’s only a $2 million grant.”
The zoo has been talking with potential donors since July, when the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta History Center announced a plan to move the monumentally huge Cyclorama painting from its Grant Park home, adjacent to Zoo Atlanta, into a new structure to be built on the Buckhead campus of the history center.
That move would free up the creaky Cyclorama building, which the city would entrust to the zoo, along with five additional acres of land.
Squeezed for room, the zoo was delighted at the opportunity. (At less than 40 acres, Zoo Atlanta has one of the smallest footprints among major zoos in the United States. Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C., has 170 acres; the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro: 2,000.)
A small problem remained: the zoo had just finished a $23 million capital campaign — the largest in its history — to build a new reptile and amphibious center and replenish the zoo’s conservation fund. (The center opens next year.)
Estimated cost of upgrading the Cyclorama building and creating the other improvements: Around $30-40 million.
“The immediate question,” said King, “would be: ‘how can you pull this off?’ Because frankly $38 million, or whatever the number might be, is a big bite of the apple for us. It’s (almost) twice what we just got through raising.”
The Woodruff grant has taken off some of that pressure, and King is optimistic.
“I consider ourselves 50 percent funded,” he said. “The enthusiasm for this project is overwhelming to me.”
The honorary chairs of the campaign committee are Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur M. Blank. Co-chairs are Paul Bowers and Jim Hannan, CEOs of Georgia Power and Georgia Pacific respectively, and David Ratcliffe, retired CEO of the Southern Co.