The Master Plan for the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is available for review at buildyourzoo.org.

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The land sales and city guarantees and bond issues have cleared all hurdles, and at long last the Zoo Foundation of Gulf Shores has everything in place to build its new zoo.

Board members invited the press to a ceremonial groundbreaking March 13, but one notable member wasn’t on hand for the happy occasion.

“Steve Jones, the chairman or our board, has dedicated his life over the last year and a few months getting this bond taken care of that we all have been working on,” Zoo Director Patti Hall said. Work obligations kept Jones, also a Gulf Shores city councilman, away.

Recently the board secured a $26.3 million bond issue to help refinance existing zoo debt, buy an additional 71-acre parcel next to the new 25-acre site and leave about $16.5 million for construction of the new zoo. The property is on the north side of Baldwin County Road 6 less than a half-mile east of State Route 59. The first 25 acres was donated to the zoo more than four years ago by Clyde Weir and his daughter Andrea.

“This is something that has been a long time coming,” Hall said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful day and an accomplishment for our board and our staff here. This is Joey [Ward’s] idea from almost 30 years ago of a Zooland Animal Park. The seeds were sown and now we have about 90-something acres and there’s going to be no end to what the zoo and what this facility will be able to provide to the community, to our guests, and we’re all very, very excited about this.”

The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo also got an assist from Flora-Bama majority owner John McInnis’ company, which bought the old zoo property. He will lease it to the Zoo Foundation for 24 months while the new facility is built. The current zoo site sits on 17 acres originally called Zooland Animal Park and owned by the Ward family. It was later donated to the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo Foundation.

“I don’t know if we would have been able to get this far if that were not possible,” Jones said. “That purchase price was $1.7 million and part of the bond issue, $1.5 million of that would go into two separate accounts that will come into play once we are up and running.”

McInnis’ group has been busy in the area, also recently buying the Sawgrass Landing strip mall and is planning a new restaurant, CoastAL, in the old Nolan’s location. Plans haven’t been revealed as to what else may locate in the other spaces in Sawgrass. It previously held a Doc’s Seafood Shack and a Thomas Infirmary Urgent Care Center.

The city of Gulf Shores also played a big role in securing the bond issue by guaranteeing a $1 million cash reserve to be used as needed for an emergency operating fund.

Yet more assistance may be forthcoming from the Alabama Legislature. Rep. Steve McMillan (R-Gulf Shores) sponsored a bill to exempt the zoo from all sales and use taxes related to capital expenditures for four years. It must still be approved by the Senate, but McMillan says he anticipates an easy passage there as well. Jones said the bill could save the zoo about $500,000.

The previous zoo site was prone to flooding and inundated with water from Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Its recovery became the topic of a series on Animal Planet television network, which told the story of the zoo’s struggles and garnered support.

“One of the things that happened was we did an Animal Planet 13-week series,” longtime Board Member Bill Stromquist said. “From that time on, the ‘Little Zoo That Could’ went nationwide. We have come from a $400,000-a-year gross to a $2.8 million-a-year gross. And the whole thing that kicked it off was Animal Planet.”

Ward said what he and architect Stan McCollough envision is going to be an outstanding attraction.

“Everything about it is larger and better,” Ward said. “The habitats are better, we have a lot of facilities. We’re going to have a full restaurant on site as well as a lot of food venues throughout the park. We’ve got trams that will take you around the park so you don’t have to walk all over the park.”

Several children’s rides and play areas are also in the plans, Ward said.

An anticipated opening date has not yet been announced.