Riverbanks Zoo and Garden’s 50th anniversary is April 25. (Photo by Ren Pusher/Carolina News and Reporter)

Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is preparing for Phase 2 of its multimillion dollar “Bridge to the Wild” expansion.

The expansion will bring a gondola and a bridge across the Saluda River, a riverfront facility with a restaurant and a nature preserve for endangered primates, according to the zoo’s press release.

“The most important aspect though is really putting the “river” in Riverbanks along with the new conservation opportunities afforded,” the zoo’s public relations manager, Matthew Perron, said.

The project includes a walking trail that will run through a forest of primates, giving visitors a close-up view of orangutans swinging overhead. There also will be a new lion and tiger exhibit where guests can get a “face-to-whiskers” experience through glass.

“I just think it would bring a little more excitement to this area,” said Councilwoman Cheryl English, who represents Richland County Council’s District 10. “Columbia used to have one of the premium zoos, and I think this will bring – or highlight and bring – all of that back.”

Riverbanks is the most visited zoo in the Southeast and is the state’s No. 1 gated attraction, Perron said. Riverbanks generates $148 million in economic benefit for the Midlands, bringing in 1.3 million guests.

It’s anticipated that the expansion will result in an annual attendance of 1.6 million, generating an additional $30 million along with about 500 additional jobs.

“I can only imagine it’ll be a huge draw for people who maybe haven’t been in a while or want to see what’s new, or even those regular visitors who need to make an annual trip into town for it,” Experience Columbia’s communications manager, Dayna Cantelmi, said.

Malone Held, a 30 year old occupational therapist, brought her family to the zoo from Augusta. When asked about the expansion, she said it would bring a lot of income to the state and the habitat for the primates would be really good for the animals.

Visitor Amanda Krepps, 39, thinks the changes would be good.

“I think it sounds like a great idea to bring more people to Columbia,” she said. “It sounds like it would be good for the community.”

Richland County Council’s District 6 councilman, Don Weaver, said he’s happy for the zoo’s growth, thinking the new attractions will create more foot traffic. But he ultimately voted against the multi-million expansion that required the approval of both Richland and Lexington County councils. He said he thinks $80 million is too big of an expense and would result in a higher tax increase for county property owners.

The expansion will be paid for with bond sales representing about a $44.8 million investment by Richland County and $35.2 million from Lexington County. The tax increase will result in a $7.20 in additional taxes per $100,000 of a home’s value staring in 2025, according to a Riverbanks press release. The increase will decline each year until the bond if paid off.

 “… I ran on a platform of fiscal accountability,” Weaver said. “In fact, I signed up to one association of taxpayers’ ‘There’s no new tax’ pledge.”

Weaver said he wasn’t against the zoo expansion, but he didn’t have a choice but to vote against it. 

Phase 1 reintroduced white rhinos to Riverbanks with upgraded infrastructure, a riverside education center for children, a new aquarium and reptile conservation facility and a new Komodo dragon breeding center, which is just now being built.

Costs and timelines are still under negotiation for Phase 2.

“Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is thrilled at the continued support from the local community, which started with the zoo opening 50 years ago,” Perron said. “Through this support from our guests along with Richland and Lexington County councils, Riverbanks will become known world-wide and be one of the gems of South Carolina.”

A video demonstration of how the completed demonstration will look. (Video courtesy of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden)

A family admiring a gorilla (Photo by Myles Harris/Carolina News and Reporter)

Guests can enjoy watching rhinoceroses in the shade. (Photo by Myles Harris/Carolina News and Reporter)

Families visit the zoo throughout the week. (Photo by Myles Harris/Carolina News and Reporter)


Ren Pusher

Ren Pusher

Pusher is a junior journalism major, minoring in hotel, restaurant, and tourism management at the University of South Carolina. She’s a South Carolina native who plans to become a travel journalist. She closely follows travel journalism and is always looking for her next adventure.

Myles Harris

Myles Harris

Harris is a senior graphic design major and mass communications minor. He is a self-taught photographer with a growing interest in photojournalism. He aspires to be a sports media photographer and designer.

More photos from Myles Harris