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Audubon continues its free Community Connect Program despite financial challenges

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY HEALEY

Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home. She also writes the Wednesday Tourism Blog on BizNewOrleans.com.


 

Of the many treasures New Orleans offers, Audubon Nature Institute facilities are at the top of the list. The nationally acclaimed Audubon Zoo, Aquarium of the Americas, and Butterfly Garden and Insectarium are draws for tourists and incredible resources for locals. With that in mind, Audubon Nature Institute has announced the continuation of its Community Connect Program for 2021.

The program has three components to help Orleans Parish residents gain free access to the zoo and the aquarium. The butterfly garden and insectarium is currently closed and in the process of relocating from its previous location at the U.S. Custom House to the aquarium.

On Orleans Parish Appreciation Days, residents receive free admission to Audubon facilities for themselves and up to four guests with a valid government-issued photo ID. On the first Thursday of the month, Orleans Parish residents receive free admission to the aquarium, and on the third Wednesday of the month residents receive free admission to the zoo.

The Audubon SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) Program provides Orleans Parish residents who receive SNAP benefits with free admission to the aquarium and zoo year-round, excluding special events. SNAP participants and up to four guests receive free admission with a valid ID that matches their SNAP card.

The third component is the Audubon Museum Partner Pass, which is a partnership between Audubon and the New Orleans Public Library. Library cardholders may check out one of three passes within the library system, with each pass allowing free admission to the zoo and aquarium for up to two adults and seven children for a two-week period.

This recommitment to providing free access to Audubon for the community comes after a year of extreme financial challenges. According to Rebecca Dietz, executive vice president of public affairs and general counsel of Audubon Nature Institute in a December interview, Audubon forecasted finishing 2020 with a net loss of over $6 million, compared to 2019’s net income of $362,000.

“It was important for us to continue the Community Connect Program in 2021 because we believe that each of us has the power to impact the natural world — for better or for worse,” said Dietz. “We exist for better. Educating our community about the natural world through positive experiences that spark action is priceless and increasing access for our community is a crucial component of our work.”

This is the third year for the program and in the previous two years, more than 70,400 visitors have participated. Dietz said that Audubon is committed to providing increased and equitable access to its facilities despite the financial hardships incurred because of COVID-19 admission restrictions.

In the spring of 2020, Audubon had to lay off or furlough more than 500 employees. Dietz said they have been able to bring back some limited staff but have not been able to rehire a majority of those who were laid off. Audubon is budgeting “extremely conservatively” for 2021 and plans to reevaluate the budget over the course of the year depending on the impacts of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Its marketing budget is one place that was trimmed, and they have paused most of their traditional advertising. Instead, Audubon is leveraging earned media opportunities and social media promotions, as well as partnerships. They are working closely with the City of New Orleans’ and Louisiana state’s tourism agencies to target the local market in 2021.

As a nonprofit organization, Audubon Nature Institute has maintained its operations through the support of sponsors, donors, visitors and its staff, even welcoming new zoo animals — “Batata,” a rare male ocelot kitten in the Jaguar Jungle section, and “Kiburi” a male mandrill in the World of Primates.

“We would like to thank our members, visitors and donors for their unwavering support during this difficult year,” said Dietz. “We are incredibly grateful to them, and because of their generosity Audubon’s animals can continue to receive outstanding care.”

Tickets for the Community Connect Program and all other admission types must be reserved online in advance at audubonnatureinstitute.org to allow for timed admission and adherence to the COVID-19 capacity regulations. Masks are required for all visitors and staff.