Late last month Zoo Atlanta opened Savanna Hall, a $55 million special events facility at the entrance to the zoo. The building, which was originally constructed in 1921, once housed the old Atlanta Cyclorama showing the 1864 Battle of Atlanta.
The almost century-old structure with its imposing granite façade has been totally transformed into a four-story, 25,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility with a wide variety of options for hosting meetings, parties and catered simchas.
Significantly, the facility features a 1,500-square-foot fully equipped kosher kitchen under the supervision of the Atlanta Kosher Commission with catering by Proof of the Pudding.
On a recent tour, we discussed the new building with Raymond King, the zoo’s president and CEO.
AJT: How did the newly repurposed building become the city’s latest kosher special events center?
King: It’s something I’m most proud about in this facility. I’m happy to have lots of friends in the Jewish community. And when they heard we were building this facility, they asked, “So is there a kosher kitchen?” And in all honesty, we had not thought about that. But it became quite clear that there are just not enough options for kosher events in the city. And so we added the separate kosher kitchen at a time that our costs were way over our budget. We added significant cost because we thought it was a real need in the community.
AJT: And what has been the response?
King: We’ve already got a pretty robust pipeline. And that’s particularly gratifying because we couldn’t get people in the building until two months ago because of construction. We’ve already got weddings booked and bar mitzvahs. We have booked probably three or four different kosher events. We’ve got a lot more we’re talking to. And frankly, that’s before we’ve done a lot of the outreach we need to do. I just think a lot of people don’t even realize it’s an option yet. This facility can accommodate anything from a small dinner party for 25 people to a large cocktail party for 750 people. And that’s not all.
Our Savanna Vista is out in the middle of the animal habitat next to our large building. It can host a kosher cocktail party for 70 people in a building that has a thatched roof. It’s literally an event surrounded by wildlife. You also can have an event in the Zambezi Elephant Care Center nearby, which is where the animals spend the evening and where they’re cared for. And you can see how they’re cared for.
We just hope our new Savanna Hall complex helps build more connections between our guests and wildlife. That’s why we exist today; beyond just getting to know our animals here at the zoo, they can look out those windows and go “wow!”
AJT: Among your most prominent donors are Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank. What has been their involvement in this project?
King: They both gave gifts of $2 million or more. They were some of our highest level donors. And they shared our excitement about the opportunity. And those weren’t the first gifts they’ve made. They’ve both got a long history of supporting the zoo. Arthur Blank was actually an honorary chair of this campaign and has been a loyal friend to us for many years. But they’ve both been great. And I think they enjoyed seeing the commitment we were making to the Jewish community as well.
AJT: And how important is the support of the community from the standpoint of contributions and underwriting opportunities?
King: We could not do this without the public philanthropic community, like the Blank and Marcus family foundations and The Kendeda Fund. We’re proud that we earn about 90 percent of our operating budget, which is very high for a cultural institution. But it’s a very capital-intensive business. By the time we rebuild the zoo, it’ll be time to start over again. And you know, we can’t do that off the admissions price and the membership fees we receive. That takes the generosity of the cultural and the philanthropic community.
And again, we just raised the millions of dollars it took to build this, with 13 of those gifts being a million dollars or more. And in all honesty, it was by far the easiest money I’ve ever raised. And it’s because everyone saw the power of this opportunity, particularly because of the way it has impacted the city, from Buckhead, where the Atlanta History Center now houses the Atlanta Cyclorama, to Grant Park, with the historic Oakland Cemetery and the Atlanta Zoo.
And thus, we hope to see that support continue as we move on to the next phase of the transformation of the zoo.