Wednesday, May 30th, 2007
The Indianapolis Business Journal reported this week that the Indianapolis Zoo is planning to build a major new gorilla exhibit. (Unfortunately, this is not available online) I don’t typically talk about things like zoos, so why mention it?
As I’ve said repeatedly, if you want people to be inspired to stay in or move to your town, you have to have an inspirational vision to attract them. Few are attracted by a modest ambition or lack of vision. If you are just drifting along, then you aren’t going to attract people except by chance (birthplace, job transfer) or through some type of commodity measure (low cost). This is especially true of younger, talented, ambitious, creative people with big plans and big dreams for their lives. The affect of civic choices such as the Hotel Mundane, the race riots in Cincinnati, or the near collapse of the symphony in Louisville can’t be underestimated here, particularly for the signals they send to prospective residents.
So I was pleased to read about this gorilla exhibit. Great apes is one of the key missing pieces at the Indy Zoo. It was well designed when it opened, being the first zoo built from the ground up to keep animals in some semblance of a natural habitat, but did not have a comprehensive collection of animals. This $30-50 million project, coming on the heels of a revamped $9.5 million Oceans exhibit, would go a long way towards rectifying that.
What’s most notable about it though, and the reason I’m covering it here, is that the level of ambition for this exhibit seems to be significantly higher than what has traditionally been the case at the zoo, or a lot of other places in Indy. The zoo is looking to do something that will be clearly world class and a leader nationally and internationally.
Zoo President Michael Crowther was quoted as saying, “I can’t tell you if this is a $30 million project or a $50 million project. What I can tell you is that we’re not willing to design something that doesn’t change the world.” [emphasis added]. Change the world. That is certainly upping the ambition level. What if all local institutions had that as their goal? And please note, this applies equally well to any city as to Indianapolis. The location is less important than the concept. Crowther goes on to say, “We want this to be the most significant great apes center in the world. We’re making a statement for the city and what it can accomplish.”
Now talk is cheap, of course. And we’ll have to see what actually gets built. But Crowther is laying down a marker and staking himself and the zoo on the quality of this exhibit. That’s an important first step. If the words don’t set a lofty goal, it is virtual certainty the reality won’t achieve one. And he said some important things to me that indicate this is for real. For example, he didn’t talk about a specific budget. The amount of money needed seems to be an outcome of what they want to achieve, not a budget they have to live with, a hopeful sign. And they seem to be involving some of the right people, such as the designer of the new gorilla exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, long one of the premier gorilla programs at American zoos.
Incidentally, the Indy Zoo has seen an uptick in attendance and earned income in recent years. Attendance shot up from under a million to 1. 3 million in the last four years, this despite the zoo having some of the steepest admission charges in the country since it receives no tax support, and income rose from $14 million to $21 million. I don’t think it is an accident that this occurred at the same time that zoo leaders are stepping up with big plans to make their institution a world leader. Again, it takes an inspiring vision to inspire people. And obviously the public likes the ambition level the zoo is bringing. If other local institutions were similarly motivated, I’d expect similar results.