Case Study

Zoo Atlanta

6 min read

Lions and Tigers and Historic Tax Credits – Oh My!

Not many buildings have their own rail system, much less one that runs across the ceiling. And very few have conference rooms where you can look out and see elephants and giraffes from the windows. But Zoo Atlanta’s Savanna Hall has both.

That’s because a $36 million financing has allowed Zoo Atlanta to rehab a neoclassical building containing an old battle cyclorama (now moved to a local history museum) into an event and meeting center, using Historic Tax Credits (HTC) and private donations.

The tracks, which remain on the ceiling, were used to hang the huge old painting. And you can see the exotic wildlife from the ballroom or when you’re tired of paying attention to your conference speaker because Savanna Hall is adjacent to the zoo’s African Savanna, where pachyderms roam alongside other wildlife, such as giraffes, zebras, ostriches, a rhinoceros and some scene-stealing meerkats. It is also one of the few zoos in America to have pandas.

Savanna Hall, which opened in February of last year, is part of a three-phase development entitled “Grand New View” totaling $55 million, according to Russell Jacobs, chief financial officer of Zoo Atlanta. A very robust capital campaign was paired with $10.1 million in HTCs ($5.6 million in federal credits and $4.5 million from the state of Georgia) through Bank of America.

Atlantic Capital Bank provided $7.3 million in HTC bridge financing. The first of the three parts, African Savanna, opened in 2019. The third phase is an entry plaza renovation, which was finished in the summer of 2020.

Added Layer of Complexity
“These HTC transactions are inherently complex, and in our case, there was an added layer of complexity,” Jacobs says. “Zoo Atlanta is a private, nonprofit organization, but the land and most of the assets are owned by the city. We manage the zoo through an agreement with the city and Fulton County. The investment being made, going into city assets, meant they had to approve it as well.”

This added time and effort for the project, “but ultimately, everything worked out fine.”

The pandemic delayed the approval of both State and Federal Historic Credits, Jacobs says. “Our application was in March of 2020, and we didn’t receive the final approval until October,” he says, causing the zoo to get the bridge loan to complete construction, using the expected proceeds of the tax credits as collateral.

Construction started in 2017 and took a total of three years for the 59,000 square foot project, which is on a plot of five or so acres.

Savanna Hall’s two-level Michael & Thalia Carlos Ballroom overlooks the animal habitats and has been designed for wedding receptions, school proms and other special events (there are two kitchens inside, one banquet, one kosher). The Hall features two terraces, one indoor and one outdoor, overlooking the wildlife enclosure and has office space and some smaller breakout rooms for meetings, says Jacobs.

An Extra Story Added
An additional story was added to the building, taking it from three to four floors. The administrative space is on the first two floors, while the event space takes up the third and fourth.

COVID-19 not only added complexity to the financing of the deal, but to the operations side as well. The timing of the pandemic “couldn’t have been worse” for Savanna Hall, Jacobs says, as it held its first event in February and then had to close in March. Many of the planned events have been rescheduled for this year.

“We’re hoping that by spring, we’re ramping back up again,” he says.

“We got the honor and the big job of restoring it,” Zoo Atlanta communications director Rachel Davis says of the building, which dates to 1921. “It was important in restoring the building that it retain many nods to the past.”

Beside the rail tracks, these include the original granite façade, as well as hand laid terracotta brick walls in the ballroom. Also preserved were a portion of the original center column that supported the building’s roof, and restored terrazzo floors, says Davis.

“When you’re walking through the ballroom and you’re looking up at the ceiling, you can easily see them,” she says, of the tracks. An actual locomotive, the Texas, also now moved to the history center, was exhibited in the building for many years.

A Poster Child
Claudia Robinson, senior vice president of community development banking at Bank of America, based in Washington, DC, comments “We were particularly interested when this opportunity came up,” calling Zoo Atlanta “a poster child” of social impact investing.

She notes that Zoo Atlanta has a strong educational focus, including outreach to area school children, a factor that “was extremely important to us.” Its availability to all residents of Atlanta and Georgia was also attractive to BofA. Environmental impact and environmental education were additional positives for the bank.

“We really did sharpen our pencils on the deal structure so we would maximize the funds going to the zoo,” she says.

The architect for Savanna Hall was The Epsten Group, Atlanta and the contractor was Winter Johnson Group,

a unit of Winter Construction, Chamblee, GA. Proof of the Pudding, Atlanta is the catering partner. About 900,000 people visit the zoo each year.

The zoo’s Grand New View project, which includes the African Savanna, Savanna Hall, and the entry plaza, began in 2014, when Zoo Atlanta got the stewardship of the historic building from the city. Besides the tax credits and the bridge loan, most of the financing came from private contributions.

“A $20 million challenge grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation launched the Grand New View capital campaign,” according to Zoo Atlanta.

“Major gifts included 11 gifts of $1 million or more from a Friend of the Zoo; The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation; Delta Air Lines through the Delta Air Lines Foundation; The Gary W. Rollins Foundation; Georgia Power Foundation; The Home Depot Foundation; The Kendeda Fund; The Marcus Foundation; longtime Zoo supporters David and Cecelia Ratcliffe; The UPS Foundation; and the Zeist Foundation.”

Story contacts:
Russell Jacobs, Chief Financial Officer, Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, [email protected]

Rachel Davis, Director of Communications, Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, [email protected]

Claudia Robinson, Senior Vice President, Community Development Banking, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Washington, DC, [email protected]

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.