Feeding Fiona and running cheetahs are just the start of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s plans for its Warren County property.
Next year the zoo, in partnership with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, plans to develop some of more than 630 acres in Turtlecreek Twp. to help children with special needs experience nature, according to Mark Fisher, the zoo’s vice president of facilities.
Fisher revealed the plans during a presentation culminating in approval of a 25-megawatt solar array, outdoor education center, camping area and 5k trail system on the land east of Interstate 75 and south of the interchange at Ohio 63.
Earlier this year, zoo staff and members of a hospital parents group advocating for special-needs children toured the properties off Ohio 741, Mason-Montgomery and Hamilton roads.
“What came out of that was some excitement about what could be, and agreement to continue that conversation,” Fisher said after the county meeting. “What do we need to think about in terms of families with disabilities and how they experience nature?”
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Fisher also expanded on the importance of the undisclosed revenue stream expected to flow in late 2020 or early 2021 when the array begins collecting solar power. “That array for us is an endowment for everything else,” he said.
Each year, Lebanon schools are to get $100,000, the county about $50,000. Fisher said a nondisclosure agreement with the entities buying the power prevented him from stating how much the zoo expected to get in the deal. With funds, water, sewer, internet and other infrastructure in place, Fisher said the zoo could talk to county leaders and potential collaborators about what else to do there.
“It opens up almost unlimited potential for discussions,” he said.
Already the zoo feeds Fiona, its famous hippopotamus, with hay harvested by a local farmer on land around the EcOhio Farm and Wetlands off Mason-Montgomery Road.
“Warren County feeds Fiona,” Fisher said in response to a question from County Commissioner Dave Young.
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Cheetahs should be running for private parties early this summer on adjoining land, if the grass is grown in well enough, Fisher said.
“The fastest land animal in the world running full speed in your county,” Fisher told the commissioners at the meeting.
A 1-acre fishing pond and maple harvesting are in the plans.
“2020, here we come,” Fisher said during the meeting. “Now we have the infrastructure to talk.”
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An application for federal funding for widening of Ohio 63, east of the Miami Valley Gaming racino, projected 300,000 visitors a year to the Warren County zoo amenities through staged development of the Turtlecreek tracts.
Young has eased up on urging for a version of the Columbus Zoo’s Wilds exotic animal park near Zanesville.
Still, Young hopes the zoo will find something to augment the offerings in the self-proclaimed “Ohio’s Largest Playground.”
“Is there a very low-impact way of trying to leverage what the zoo has with our No. 1 industry, tourism?” Young said last week after the meeting. “How do you get more visitors to the county in a very responsible way that’s unique?”
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Currently the zoo amenities and plant sales in Warren County are reached off rural stretches of Mason-Montgomery or Hamilton roads. Someday, the main entrance could be off Ohio 741, between Springboro and Mason.
Fisher said it was too early to commit to anything, but suggested perhaps animals once native to Ohio could comprise the wildlife in a park there.
“I would say maybe to all of that stuff,” he said. “We will be very sensitive to the community and what they want.”
Fisher added that anything new also had to be acceptable to the zoo. “It’s got to make sense for us, too,” he said.
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