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Master plan for the Ecoplex

The Birmingham Ecoplex was a 300-acre "world class" zoological park proposed in the mid-1990s. The plans were developed by the Birmingham Ecological Association for a large tract of property owned by USX just southeast of Liberty Park near I-459. The $78.5 million project to replace the Birmingham Zoo never progressed beyond the master plan stage due to the inability of supporters to get funding commitments from Jefferson County and many of the region's separate municipalities.


The Ecoplex was proposed as a public-private venture by the non-profit Birmingham Ecological Association, headed by Rust International's Rodney Gilbert and developer Billy Eyster. Initially envisioned as a $35-50 million project for a "world class" zoo, the facility would replace the existing Jimmy Morgan Zoo at Lane Park. Zoo experts hailed the chosen site as an ideal setting and the master plan, created by CLRR, Inc. of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was hailed as an example of a "4th generation" wildlife park, incorporating modern concepts for animal exhibits.

The process of forging cooperation among the scores of municipalities in the area was seen, early on, as the biggest challenge to the project. Alabama Power CEO Elmer Harris challenged regional leaders to work toward the greater good for the region, but many suburban mayors complained that they had enough budgetary challenges already. Conflict between cities, such as Birmingham's lawsuit challenging the annexation of Liberty Park by Vestavia Hills, also played a role in inhibiting cooperation. Private fund-raising was more successful, but perhaps divided as early commitments to what became the McWane Science Center were also being solicited.

The project had the backing of then-Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington, who pledged $20 million from the City of Birmingham (funds made available by the sale of the Birmingham Industrial Water Board). Other public funding was to have come from a $1 per resident contribution from area municipalities over a 25-year period. Hoover mayor Frank Skinner budgeted $45,000 for his city's contribution in 1994. The plan was derailed, however, after the Jefferson County Commission decided not to participate.

Opponents included the Cahaba River Society and the local chapter of the Sierra Club, who felt that the site, on the Cahaba River was too fragile to support such intensive development. Some residents of Redmont Park and Mountain Brook opposed the project out of fear of commercial redevelopment of the former zoo site. Those worried led the Birmingham City Council to formally dedicate scores of city parks that had never been officially dedicated. Others questioned the fact that the proposed park would actually exhibit fewer animals than the existing zoo.

Arrington later suggested building the ecoplex alongside the proposed Visionland amusement park in Bessemer or to a site alongside a proposed B.A.S.S. headquarters complex. Following the failure of the ecoplex project, efforts by the Friends of the Birmingham Zoo to upgrade and improve the existing zoo gained momentum. Some of the concepts for the ecoplex, such as an Alabama farm exhibit and open savannah space exhibiting several species in one area, found their way into redevelopment of the Lane Park zoo.


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