By Tia Lynn Ivey
The Georgia Safari Conservation Park (GSCP), known locally as the coming-zoo in Morgan County, is moving forward, but could be another three years out from the first phase of the park opening. GSCP leaders won over the Morgan County Board of Commissioners Tuesday for approval of two requests related to the long-awaited project. But first, County Commissioner Ben Riden grilled GSCP leaders over funding gaps and delays stalling the project.
GSCP leaders appeared before the Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) to request renewal of the park’s conditional use and a three-year extension on a perviously approved variance with certain conditions. The BOC would ultimately vote to approve both requests but not before Commissioner Riden delivered a heap of skepticism over the project.
“It’s 2020, and they ain’t no closer to having the financing than they were three years ago,” said Riden, who bemoaned the many delays since the project’s inception in 2013. “Why should I believe that they will ever have the financing? This has been a seven-year process and they haven’t gotten the financing yet. The project has been in limbo and nothing has been done. They have a few water buffalo and that’s it, and the water buffalo get out all the time.”
Riden continued to question GSCP leaders Mike Conrads and Bill Killmer about funding necessary for the project to move forward. A groundbreaking ceremony for Phase I was held in 2018, with a completion date set for Spring 2020, but Spring has come and gone and the first phase of the park is nowhere near complete. The first iteration of the park is supposed to feature a drive-through safari complete with exotic animals such as giraffes, zebras, bongos, kudu and ostrich. The first phase is expected to cost $15 million.
“The thing that really bothers me is that I remember it was explicitly promised that the walk-through phase would be done by now. It was explicitly promised, and it’s not done. Nothing has been done.”
Conrads countered Riden’s criticism of the GSCP project.
“It’s personally frustrating to be told we haven’t done anything in the last three years, because we absolutely have,” said Conrads, who noted the vast sums of money already invested into the project. “We are talking about hard dollars here—$1.8 million dollars—already invested into this project. We are so ready to get this thing done because every month we are burning cash to keep it going and fine-tune our plans.”
Conrads also pointed out that since the 436 acres located at 1881 Monticello Highway has been taken out of conservation use for the project, the county is actually benefitting now even while GSCP project has not been completed.
“We have moved it out of conservation use, so congratulations county, you have gotten more tax dollars out of it,” said Conrads.
Riden pressed further about funding,
“I’m an accountant. Show me the funding. Where is the funding? Where is it?” demanded Riden.
Conrads reluctantly announced that the GSCP has submitted a completed application package for funding with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“That’s more than I wanted to say. But there it is. We are just waiting for an answer,” said Conrads.
Commissioner Andy Ainslie defended the project. “It’s green space,” said Ainslie. “I think it’s a good project, but even if it doesn’t happen, it’s no harm, no foul.”
Planning Director Chuck Jarrell also defended the project.
“These kind of project do take time,” said Jarrell. “They are dealing with state and federal agencies that have a lot of red tape.”
The BOC voted unanimously to reapprove the conditional use for a zoo facility for 436 acres located at 1181 Monticello Highway. The BOC voted 3-to-1 to reapprove the variance in the time limitation for the project. The BOC agreed to a three-year extension that will expire in 18 months if the GSCP does not obtain a building permit. Riden voted against the variance citing funding concerns.
“I’m voting against this because I think funding should be tied to it,” said Riden.