Earlier this month, City Council voted to pass a new city budget that includes funding for a Chattanooga Zoo expansion—which is exciting some residents but worrying others.
The expansion will be the largest the zoo has ever had. It includes giraffe, lion and other African animal exhibits.
But some are concerned about what the expansion will inevitably replace: the Chattanooga Fitness Center, located next door.
Because the Chattanooga Zoo operates under the city of Chattanooga, the city must approve of major projects before they can get underway.
City Council has agreed to allocate $250,000 a year until 2021 for the new expansion, which will include different animal viewing locations and a giraffe feeding deck.
The allocation was placed under a subsection within the budget proposal for “investing in a smarter, healthier Chattanooga.”
According to the budget, the zoo expansion is set to establish new jobs in several different departments, provide new educational opportunities to residents and increase the amount of recreational opportunities for families to share together.
“Giraffe feedings are just amazing,” Chattanooga Zoo CEO Darde Long said. “They inspire a sense of shock and awe. That’s what we want to create for people.”
The animals for the exhibit have not yet been picked out, but will come from other zoos after a committee with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums decides which animals are best for relocation and which animal personalities the local zoo is best-suited for.
Construction on the expansion has not yet begun, but the zoo is already in the process of obtaining the proper documents to begin construction.
Chattanooga Zoo leaders reminded citizens that none of the animals at the zoo have been brought in from the wild, and several are part of conservation programs.
“We’re accredited, which means you really have to do everything right,” Long said. “We’re becoming more and more focused on animal welfare to make sure we’re doing our best. We believe that the message we get across supersedes any idea that we shouldn’t have a zoo. I have empathy for people, but we do some very good things here.”
Chattanooga Fitness Center
Directly in the path of an expanding zoo is the Chattanooga Fitness Center, a community gym well-known for its $1 entrance fee.
The Chattanooga Fitness Center, like the Chattanooga Zoo, operates under the city of Chattanooga and so is also subject to dictation by the city. The plans for the zoo expansion are set to take over space currently occupied by the Chattanooga Fitness Center, which will result in the facilities being torn down within the next few years.
The Chattanooga Fitness Center, also known to some as the Powerhouse Gym, is accessible to low-income residents and senior citizens who live in nearby areas.
During a City Council meeting Sept. 12, Chattanooga resident Joel Willis approached the council to explain his concern with the removal of the facility.
“The value of this, especially near a place like Lincoln Park and Citico, is immeasurable, [as is] the value to our seniors whose No. 1 problem is loneliness,” Willis said. “I think we really need to take that into account versus capturing some more animals to put them in a cage [at] a place where maybe people don’t want to go to all of the time.”
Zoo leaders are aware of the concern about the removal of the gym, but want to clarify that they do not want the gym to be removed completely.
“We don’t want the fitness center to go away,” Long said. “It’s a fairly easy program to relocate compared to a zoo. We aren’t land-hungry; we just want to enhance what we do here.”
As pointed out during the City Council meeting Sept. 12, the Chattanooga Fitness Center is also declining after years of use and is in need of an update. Plans for relocating the program have already begun.
“We’re looking at different plans,” District 8 Councilman Anthony Byrd said. “We’re looking at moving the equipment to nearby recreational centers for the time being.”
Alina Hunter-Grah is a contributing writer. She currently attends UTC, where she was previously the news editor of the student newspaper, The University Echo. Alina also worked at CNN during the summer of 2017 and is the former Chattanooga correspondent for 2nd & Church, a literary magazine based out of Nashville.