For those of us whose memories go back a long ways, one of the all-time great New Orleans stories is the transformation of the Audubon Park Zoo from an “animal ghetto” to a world-class zoo that is considered an American gem.
It all started in the 1970s when then-Mayor Moon Landrieu, irate about complaints that the zoo was a vile-smelling, dirty place where the animals suffered from a lack of care, sent a promising young administrative assistant Ron Forman to the Uptown outpost to see what if anything could be done.
Forman, an ambitious, visionary fellow led a revolt that ousted the old regime and put in place a new regime backed by a host of eager volunteers and put Forman in charge.
The story of how Forman transformed the zoo into a place of wonder that now attracts more than 2 million visitors a year and then created a world-class aquarium by the riverfront and an Insectarium at the old Custom House building on Canal Street has often been told.
Now, the Audubon Institute is asking New Orleans voters to renew a property tax millage that will be on the March 15 ballot. Not everyone loves Forman or the Audubon Institute but the critics are certainly a minority in this town. Unless they show up pretty soon with an eye-catching campaign, the Audubon Institute’s record of accomplishments and credibility should lead to an easy victory at the polls on March 15.
The tax renewal is for 4.2 mills that would produce about $11.9 million a year for the Audubon Institute to continue doing what it has been doing for some four decades. Lined up behind the tax renewal are many of the usual suspects, including Archie Manning who remembers teaching sons Peyton and Eli how to throw tight spirals on the green of Audubon Park. Also behind the tax renewal are Xavier University President Norman Francis and icon Irma Thomas whose concerts at the Park on Mother’s Day are New Orleans classics.
Forman says the Audubon Institute, run by a board but always responsive to Forman’s visions, has been a diligent steward of the public’s tax revenues. The Institute has used the tax revenues to bond major projects that have amounted to more than $300 million over the years. The Audubon Institute now employs nearly 300 permanent and part-time employees. The Park, Zoo, Aquarium and Insectarium are all impeccably maintained and are touted by visitors who recognize them as world-class facilities.
We’ll be voting for the tax renewal on March 15 and hope you will join us. We sometimes wonder what would have happened if Moon Landrieu had not sent young Ron Forman to check out the zoo these many years ago. Perhaps another Ron Forman sooner or later would have come along. Or, perhaps not. New Orleans is fortunate indeed he saw the animal ghetto of that time and realized that something better could be created that would enhance New Orleans, hopefully forever.
Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board, and Columbus is working on the campaigns of Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Charles Foti. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and council candidate Dana Kaplan.