Audubon Institute Asks to Borrow $10M from Riverfront Project Partners

African Lions
Zoo employee Casey Ochoa walks through the lion exhibit at the Audubon Zoo, Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

NEW ORLEANS – The Audubon Nature Institute – the nonprofit that runs the zoo, aquarium and other attractions – has been looking for creative solutions to its pandemic-related financial crisis.

On Wednesday, Audubon asked its partners in a proposed riverfront development if it can borrow $10 million reserved to pay for that project to help cover the institute’s operating costs while it tries to get back on firmer financial footing.

Pre-COVID, Audubon teamed with the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority, New Orleans & Company and the City of New Orleans to convert the Governor Nicholls Street and Esplanade Avenue wharves into a park and recreation area. There is already money set aside for the $15 million project, but work is likely to be delayed for several years, so Audubon made a pitch at the monthly meeting of the Convention Center Authority that it be able to take out an emergency loan for three years. The authority postponed a decision.

Audubon estimates it hosted about 50,000 paid visitors to its facilities in August, which is lower than pre-pandemic levels but a sign that tourism is returning slowly. Officials estimate the nonprofit lost roughly half of its operating budget – $21 million – in the first four months of the shutdown.

As of now, zoos and aquariums around the country have been excluded from any federal relief bills. The same goes for destination marketing organizations like New Orleans & Company. But local leaders have been lobbying for new federal relief and to receive some funding from the $1.8 billion Louisiana already received from the CARES Act. 

In the meantime, Audubon president and CEO Ron Forman awaits a decision about the loan request.

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