Safari Park kicks off $18 million capital campaign

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By Dianne Yost

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Morgan County’s Georgia Zoo and Safari Park has changed its name to the Georgia Safari Conservation Park (GSCP) to better reflect its mission and market positioning emphasizing the safari aspect of the attraction, Chief Executive Officer and Morgan County resident Bill Killmer said as he addressed a group of stakeholders Thursday evening.

In addition, Killmer announced the formation of the Georgia Zoological Society, a nonprofit 501C3 organization that partners with the GSCP to secure funding for the park and its mission-based programming to save wildlife and their natural habitats through conservation, education, connection and inspiration.

Killmer said the Society has launched an $18 million capital campaign and has secured its first board member Madisonian Christine Lambert to help develop the board and spearhead local fundraising efforts.

Spokesperson Meghann Gibbons said additional board members will be announced in the near future. Currently the organization has $5 million in donated funds, including land contributions. The GSCP project has a total projected cost of $38 million.

“As our project has grown, we have had a slight shift. What differentiates us is our safari experience,” said Killmer, whose childhood growing up in the country fostered his love of nature and inspired him to become a landscape architect.

Lambert looks at this as another opportunity to be involved in something exciting for our community. “It has so many elements that Madison and Morgan County already support: education, conservation and preservation. This development will enhance all of these things, while adding a huge boost to our economy due to the jobs and tourism it will bring. The beautiful lay of the land will not be destroyed, which is huge for those of us who look at it everyday. There is no down side in my opinion,” she said.

The Georgia Safari and Conservation Park represents a tremendous economic impact for Madison and Morgan County, said Madison Morgan County Chamber of Commerce President and Economic Director Bob Hughes. “Not only in direct jobs, but in the visitors it will attract and that spins off to benefit our hospitality industries, restaurants and retail. It’s a win-win for everybody!”

Indeed, the projected economic impact of the GSCP is impressive: Creation of 276 jobs; $21 million in payroll dollars in the first five years; $132 million in taxable sales in first five years; and $477 million total economic impact to Madison and Morgan County in first five years.

Upon reaching its fundraising goal and development phase, construction for Phase One of the 400-acre attraction will take 12 to 18 months. Specifically, Phase One will feature: a dramatic front entrance building, 100 acres of walk-through animal displays in their habitats, conservation station, a feeding pavilion for feeding the giraffes, the safari loading platform, safari experience pasture displays, zip line and a mobile safari adventure programming to bring animals to schools and organizations for the young and the elderly.

  According to Killmer, the park is well positioned for success from its location, large landmass and its unique safari-focused draw. “We have Columbia’s (South Carolina) Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, Zoo Atlanta and the Georgia Aquarium. The Georgia Safari Conservation Park in Morgan County is located perfectly in the middle of the region.” In addition, he said the site’s proximity to Hartsfield International Airport offers tremendous opportunities to reach visitors.

“Our model is San Diego,” he said, explaining that San Diego is home to SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park — three properties that compliment each other and offer synergies in marketing the attractions, research and other programming.

For example, a consumer in San Diego can purchase a 3-for-1 pass to visit all three locations. Likewise, our region has the Georgia Aquarium, Zoo Atlanta and soon the Georgia Safari Conservation Park in Morgan County.

“On top of that we have a great concept,” he said, one that is located near beautiful downtown Madison, a well-known tourist destination, and located just six-tenths of a mile off of I20.

Another plus pointing to the GSCP’s future success is its Georgia Zoological Society Advisory Committee, a Who’s Who of zoo and animal care experts, including: Jack Hanna of the Columbus Zoo; Rick Barongi of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Houston Zoo; Dr. Terry Maple of Zoo Atlanta, the Jacksonville Zoo and Palm Beach Zoo; Randy Rieches of the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park.

At the meeting Killmer also introduced two new members to the team: consultants Meghann Gibbons and Brad Olecki. Gibbons is overseeing marketing and communications and has 16 years of experience in the zoological community, travel and tourism. She spent 10 years at the Georgia Aquarium driving attendance and building its reputation as the largest and most engaging aquarium in the world.

Olecki is overseeing fundraising efforts for the Georgia Zoological Society and GSCP. He is CEO and founder of Trenches Sports & Entertainment, specializing in  fundraising, corporate sponsorship and revenue generation for attractions and high profile projects. Formerly, he was part of the founding leadership team that built the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.

Other team members are: CEO Killmer, Chief Creative Officer Robert Tucker, Chief Financial Officer Andrew O’Connell, Partner Michael Conrads (President of Lane Conrads  Corporation) and Education Director Brandie Anderson.

Once completed the Georgia Safari Conservation Park will offer a mix of attractions and programs to provide guests with an immersive experience into the world of animals and their homes. According to Killmer’s statement on the website: “With picturesque open plains and a forest landscape, we will allow guests to view exotic, free-roaming animals in panoramic grasslands very much like the native environment of their wild counterparts. Guests will embark on specially outfitted safari vehicles on a guided tour designed to mirror the experience of an authentic African game drive.”

Killmer says GSCP can make a huge impact on visitors and their connection with nature and animals, recalling the first time he fed a giraffe. “He comes down with his big eyes and gently takes that leaf. It’s life changing.”

Killmer is especially excited about the educational programming and outreach to at-risk kids. “Not all kids get a fair shake,” he said. “We want to focus especially on that, connecting them from school to the real world.”

“We have a nature deficit syndrome, he said, alluding to kids constantly texting and playing digital games. “If kids don’t have a connection to the natural world, what kind of future will we have?”

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