We helped Zoo Atlanta with an important transformation. The elephants? They’re loving it.
When Raymond King took over as President and CEO of Zoo Atlanta in 2010, he inherited a challenging situation.
Here was a valued community institution – a place where generations of city residents and guests had come to experience the magic of the animal kingdom – that over the past decade had become mired in significant operating losses and growing debt.
The zoo’s vulnerable financial position meant that it was handicapped in its ability to address some of the key strategic challenges it was facing – which included making sure that care of its two elephants continued to match the latest in scientific standards and research.
“Given the social structure of elephants and what’s best for their long-term health,” Raymond explains, “we were aware that we needed to be able to house at least three of them moving forward. The problem was, we didn’t have the room to expand their old habitat or the space on our property to build a new one.”
In addition, the zoo needed a large, indoor special events venue to help engage a new generation of visitors and expand its mission of conservation through education, research, and providing meaningful experiences.
The initial expectation, however, was that the venue would need to be built from the ground up. And where were the necessary resources going to come from to make both an indoor events space and a new elephant habitat possible?
The zoo eventually reached an agreement with the City of Atlanta through which it would assume responsibility for the original Cyclorama building and five acres of surrounding property that borders the zoo’s land.
The resulting project took the name of Grand New View – with the combined goal being a renovation and repurposing of the Cyclorama building into an events space, Savanna Hall, and the construction of a new, large-scale African Savanna exhibit on the adjacent property for the elephants and other animals.
But there were still plenty of obstacles to overcome.
With the Cyclorama building listed as a contributing structure to the Grant Park Historic District, the renovations proved costly and time-consuming. And the nature of the project as a public-private partnership meant financial and political complexities that at certain points, threatened to derail the project entirely.
Thankfully, Raymond’s banking background and financial leadership experience had resulted in a steady operating surplus since he stepped into the role. The previous debt had been paid off, and the zoo had even begun to build significant reserves before the project started. They just needed a banking partner to provide additional financing to help get the project over the line.
And that’s where Atlantic Capital stepped in.
“Due to some of the challenges with Grand New View, we had become what bankers will describe as ‘storied credit,’” Raymond says. “We needed bankers who could look beyond what they saw on paper and make a decision based on the underlying long-term fundamentals. In today’s environment, it takes a smaller, entrepreneurial bank to do that. This is what led us to Atlantic Capital.”
Raymond had gotten to know a few members of Atlantic Capital’s leadership team over the years, and he reached out to the bank through Chairman Sonny Deriso. The process of closing the transaction, however, was a team effort.
“Everyone communicated well throughout the process, was accessible, and they did a great job listening,” Raymond says. “With the complications we faced, it would have been understandable for the bank to lose patience or get cold feet, but they never wavered in their commitment – that said a lot.”
“We love working with nonprofits, and Zoo Atlanta is a great organization,” says Rich Oglesby, Atlantic Capital’s President of the Atlanta Division. “We’ve built our bank to serve medium-sized companies that often get lost in the shuffle at larger institutions. For us, nonprofits like the zoo are as much a part of our focus and attention as for-profit businesses.”
With Atlantic Capital’s help, the zoo’s African Savanna transformation has finally become a reality, and it’s been a resounding success with guests and animals alike. The zoo recently welcomed its third elephant, Msholo, to the new exhibit, and all three elephants are thoroughly enjoying the waterfalls and 360-degree-access lagoon. Meanwhile, Savanna Hall hosted its first event in February 2020 and immediately received bookings for many more. Featuring elevated views over the exhibit, it’s a truly unique setting for gatherings of all types.
Wherever you’re located, we strongly encourage you to make the trip!
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