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Brookgreen Gardens: Improvements resumes as economy improves

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Brookgreen Gardens started the first phase of an expansion of its Lowcountry zoo four years ago with a new river otter habitat.

It followed that by redoing the facades of the other exhibits and improving the wild turkey exhibit.

Then the economy crashed and like other nonprofits, along with private businesses and organizations, Brookgreen had to pause and try a more cautious approach to the future.

It was two years before the next project in the expansion was introduced: the addition of Whispering Wings, a butterfly exhibit. That was a project Brookgreen was able to tackle at a relatively small cost — about $125,000 for construction.

Now, Brookgreen is forging ahead with more small zoo projects, though they’re not necessarily ones the public is likely to notice, as well as more visible improvements in other areas.

For example, it’s nearly tripling the size of the 420-square-foot building it uses to prepare the food for the zoo’s 234 animals (not including its more than 1,000 butterflies).

It also recently renovated a house on the property — the former home of Frank Tarbox Jr, who directed the creation of the original botanical garden on the site in the 1930s and later became Brookgreen’s president — for use by zoo staff. The facility houses offices, but also allows space to perform minor surgeries on the zoo animals. That saves the staff from having to transport animals to a vet in Garden City.

Both projects are part of a goal outlined in Brookgreen’s master plan to create a better and more efficient infrastructure, said Bob Jewell, president and CEO at Brookgreen.

“It raises the bar for us in terms of the quality of the institution as far as the zoo goes, but it also makes our people more efficient,” he said.

Brookgreen is already the only zoo on the Carolina coast to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“The thing that’s so special about that is it’s very requiring,” Jewell said. “I can sleep at night knowing these animals are getting the same care that those at Riverbanks Zoo get, that those at the Chicago Zoo and all the major zoos get, even though ours is relatively small.”

Still, Brookgreen is always striving to improve.

“We were able to proceed with these plans because it wasn’t a major capital outlay of funds,” Jewell said. “We did the whole thing with our craftsmen. We have three very skilled guys on staff and some volunteers who are amazing in what they can do. We probably did it for about one-fifth of what it would have cost through an agreement with a construction company.”

Brookgreen also recently opened a poetry garden in what was once known as the dogwood garden. That garden was one of the original designs completed under Tarbox in the 1930s, but the dogwoods were hit hard by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and were at the end of their life cycle anyway.

“Brookgreen was never successful in replanting the dogwoods that weren’t viable, so we’ve been thinking about a new strategy for that garden for a long time,” Jewell said.

The concept of a poetry garden offered the additional benefit of allowing stone plaques bearing works by Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling and Percy Bysshe Shelley to be taken out of storage where they had been locked away since the 1990s.

The garden is about an acre and features 107 crepe myrtles that should offer plenty of shade a few years down the road. New lighting was added, along with an irrigation system and aeration systems for the reflecting pools.

The project started around the first of the year and finished about two months ago.

“It’s really just nice,” Jewell said. “Reception has been good and I think everyone is enjoying it.”

Even better, “imagine this at Nights of a Thousand Candles,” he said referring to Brookgreen’s annual holiday lights festival. “It’s going to be spectacular.”

Brookgreen is also renovating another existing building to house a library for volunteers and staff. It will put the gardens’ documents on art and history in one place. Plans are to eventually open it up to the public, but “that’ll take us a while,” Jewell said.

Construction on that project was expected to wrap up by the end of the week, allowing staff and volunteers to start the process of moving furniture and materials into the space.

Another building near the front of the property is being turned into a station for plant labeling and a horticultural house, with a horticultural library.

Early next year, new plantings, pathways and a sculpture by Anna Hyatt Huntington, who founded Brookgreen with her husband, Archer, are scheduled to be put in the grassy area between and slightly behind the visitors center and the gift shop.

“Now visitors will see Anna’s piece when they drive in at the entrance and then when you park your car, you’ll see another one,” Jewell said.

Jewell wanted that project done in time for Nights of a Thousand Candles, but “it’s just not going to happen.”

As for the zoo, there are several more projects in store for Phase 1, including redoing the waterfowl and deer exhibits.

“The herd of deer really are gorgeous. The problem is most of the time you can’t really see them. They hang out at the back of the exhibit and you have to take the trekker ride out to Laurel Hill to see them or when they come up to feed you’ll see them,” Jewell said.

He wants to build a boardwalk going to the center of the exhibit with a gazebo and a pond. Plans are also to split the exhibit, with deer on one side and another species yet to be determined on the other side.

There are also plans for three new small exhibits in an undeveloped area of the zoo where sidewalks were laid about five years ago. Those would house bats, armadillos and a third type of animal staff is still debating over.

“Those would be relatively inexpensive,” he said. “Then as we move forward into Phases 2 and 3, that’s where the exhibits get more expensive. Plans call for a Carolina wetlands exhibit between the aviary and otter exhibit, and exhibits for predators, including bobcats, coyotes and bears.

“Those are all over $1 million apiece,” he said.

However, those projects won’t come up for some time.

“We’ll be in Phase 1 for a while unless someone drops about $4-5 million,” he said. “What we tried to do is go with the lower hanging fruit in terms of expense, so we could get more interest in the exhibits, create more demand and create foot traffic, and build incrementally on that while developing the infrastructure.”

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