Riverbanks Zoo Sea Lion

Riverbanks Zoo | courtesy photo

I’m happy to start by reporting that Satch is not dead, and is instead enjoying his retirement after 40 years as executive director of Riverbanks Zoo & Garden.

He stepped down in 2017 after building Riverbanks into South Carolina’s top individual tourist attraction, making it an integral part of life in the Midlands and giving us something we could all point to with pride.

And we did. And we do. And we must continue to. So it’s time to fight.

In the wake of Satch’s departure (and I doubt the timing is a coincidence, as he was highly knowledgeable in how to deal with not only zoo animals but also political animals), Lexington County Council is making an ill-advised attempt to cut funding to Riverbanks.

Further, they are proposing to change the method of funding for the zoo, switching it from the millage agency it has always been (which provides automatic annual funding) to an agency subject to annual and arbitrary appropriations by Council.

Before going any further, let me give you two words that show what happens when politicians are in left in charge of adequately funding an important community recreation asset. Those two words are: Finlay Park.

But Columbia City Council allowing the demise of Finlay Park (once the crown jewel of the city, now the hell hole of downtown) would pale in comparison to having local governments start to undercut the zoo’s funding.

And that’s true even if you’re going to utilize cuts made to Riverbanks for some other good purpose, as Lexington County says it would do. But to lessen the zoo’s funding is to lessen its economic impact, which is a tremendous asset for the Midlands.

Lexington County Council members backing the proposal to cut funding to Riverbanks say it is not a “core function” of government. Of course, that depends on what one considers a “core function.”

I would define that term to include expenditures on quality of life issues for local citizens, and I certainly think Riverbanks meets that standard in the same way that public libraries, public parks, public swimming pools and other such facilities do.

And before a Lexington County Council member jumps up to point out that you have to pay to get in Riverbanks in spite of the taxpayer support it receives, the fact is the average homeowner is taxed $6 a year for that — in return for which the zoo provides a series of no cost admission days (Free Fridays) to local residents, as well as free education programs for local school groups.

With regular zoo admission now at $20 for ages 13+ and $17 for kids, a single trip to the zoo on one of those Free Fridays more than recoups the tax contribution citizens make toward having that great asset in this community. Throw in the thousands of local students who visit Riverbanks for educational programs at no charge, and the deal is obviously a good one.

By way of full disclosure, my firm handled the advertising for Riverbanks Zoo & Garden for 15 years (1990-2005). Working with Satch and marketing director Mary Leverette, we pushed to make Riverbanks a regional attraction, expanding its advertising beyond Columbia, even into the Charlotte and Augusta TV markets. And it worked.

The long running and widely honored Riverbanks Rocks TV spots, featuring classic rock songs like “Wild Thing,” “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” “Born to Be Wild” and others (all starring the late, great Columbia actor Bill Roberson, who went on to have lines with Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and roles in other major movies) are a significant chapter in my company’s history.

That said, my opinion on this issue is unrelated to that history. Nor did Satch or anyone else call and ask me to write a column about this matter.

Further, I do not favor any proposed compromise on this issue. Riverbanks supporters should politely but pointedly demand that Lexington County Council keep its hands off the zoo’s millage agency status (which voters approved decades ago) and the funding that ensues from it.

And before you hang up, tell them “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side …”

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics. Let us know what you think: Email editor@free-times.com.

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