Riverbanks Zoo and Garden will turn 50 April 25, 2024, and is launching a year-long countdown in April amid more zoo baby announcements, news for conservation, and a request for Richland and Lexington County councils to approve a bond in support of Phase Two of its Bridge to the Wild expansion.

Completion of the project will increase Riverbanks’ annual economic impact to more than $175 million, create 500 additional jobs in the community, and boost annual attendance to more than 1.6 million.

“Phase Two of Riverbanks’ Bridge to the Wild development will boost tourism and the economy at major time of growth in South Carolina—bringing one of the area’s most treasured natural resources, the Saluda River, to the forefront of the guest experience,” said Tommy Stringfellow, president and CEO of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. “Fifty years is a major achievement and a great opportunity to celebrate our successes as one of our state’s top destination attractions, a powerful economic driver in our region, and a trusted education and conservation resource.”

Highlights of the Phase Two expansion will include an all-new shared species habitat for orangutans and other endangered primates, a first of its kind multi-purpose facility on the banks of the Saluda, and a South Carolina nature preserve inviting guests to see some of the state’s native wildlife up close including black bears, red wolves, and bald eagles.

Since the opening of the Darnall W. and Susan F. Boyd Aquarium & Reptile Conservation Center on March 2, Riverbanks has welcomed more than 110,000 visitors in less than a month—numbers not seen since 2017-2019 following the last expansion—with more than 50 percent traveling from beyond 50 miles.

“The completion of this privately funded, incredible new facility is a testament to the progress and impact Riverbanks has on the region and beyond, and the subsequent surge in tourist visits is the milestone we wanted to reach in order to go back to the counties and ask for their support of the next chapter in our history,” said Stringfellow.

Economic Impact
Previous support from the two counties propelled Riverbanks from a local attraction to a leader in tourism and an economic engine, consistently welcoming more than one million visitors and increasing the local economic impact by 250 percent to $149 million per year.

For nearly 50 years, strategic investments in capital projects have allowed Riverbanks to develop award-winning exhibits and impactful conservation programs that attract visitors and contribute to the economy and quality of life in the Midlands and state of South Carolina. Riverbanks’ status as one of the best zoos in the nation is the direct result of the nearly five decades-long public-private partnership with Richland and Lexington Counties, individual donors, and private corporations.

“Our remarkable formula for success and partnership with Richland and Lexington Counties should be celebrated and safeguarded for the future of the animals and for the continued economic strength and vibrancy of our communities,” said Stringfellow.

Each year, Riverbanks provides a significant annual economic impact in South Carolina, from which Richland and Lexington Counties benefit.

$148.7 million is pumped into the local economy each year.

More than 500 employees.

Additional 1,800 jobs generated in the community.

Nearly $1 million in total tax revenue.

$51.7 million is spent annually by Riverbanks’ visitors from outside of Columbia— $11.8 million in accommodations; $16 million in food and beverage; and $13.3 million in retail.

More than 50 percent of Riverbanks’ visitors are tourists traveling from more than 50 miles outside of Columbia, with 20 percent traveling from outside of the state.

More than 46,000 member households, representing more than 210,000 individuals—26 percent from Lexington County; 22 percent from Richland County; 16 percent from out of state.

About Bridge to the Wild
Once complete, Bridge to the Wild will transform both sides of the Saluda River into the state’s leading conservation resource in addition to elevating Riverbanks’ stature as the leader in family fun. The multi-phased strategic project includes:

Phase One, a $32 million privately funded investment, began in 2019 with white rhinos returning to Riverbanks after 30 years, infrastructure improvements, and the new Darnall W. and Susan F. Boyd Aquarium & Reptile Conservation Center. Two additional project announcements are slated for mid-2023. Phase One which is fully funded, is made possible through Riverbanks’ earned revenue and in partnership with the state, The Boyd Foundation, Riverbanks Society, and private donors.

Phase Two includes an expansion of the Zoo’s footprint. This expansion includes an orangutan habitat, South Carolina nature preserve, enhanced lion and tiger habitats, and a one-of-a-kind multipurpose facility on the banks of the Saluda River.

Community Investment
In the coming months, Riverbanks will be seeking approval from both Richland and Lexington County councils for a bond in support of the development of Phase Two of Bridge to the Wild. The bond would be issued by the Richland-Lexington Riverbanks Park District and spread evenly across the two counties based on assessed property value—resulting in an approximate $44.8 million investment by Richland County and $35.2 million by Lexington County.

If approved, the bond will result in an estimated maximum cost of $7.20 in 2025 on $100,000 of assessed property value and will gradually decrease each year until it expires. Unlike other agencies that request bonds, a bond to Riverbanks is a direct economic multiplier across every sector of industry. The tax adjustment would not begin to impact property owners until 2024.

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