Pictured are Tommy Stringfellow flanked by Optimist President Jay Downs, left and speaker host David Chao, right.

Tommy Stringfellow, President and CEO of Riverbanks Zoo, gave a presentation to the Optimist Club of St. Andrews-Irmo June 21.

Stringfellow spoke about the current status of the zoo and enumerated several impressive statistics regarding the zoo’s impact on the Midlands. 

Riverbanks Zoo is the largest tourist attraction in our state, with more than 1.3 million visitors a year. Those numbers, put in perspective, make Riverbanks the largest zoo in the Southeast, attendance-wise. For example, it exceeds the annual visitors of Memphis, Atlanta, Miami, Jacksonville, and North Carolina (Asheboro) zoos individually, not collectively. Another perspective of its impact is that its annual visitors exceed the attendance of 12 USC and Clemson football sellouts combined. Riverbanks attracts visitors from beyond the immediate vicinity. More than 300,000 visitors annually are from out of state, and more than 650,000 come from areas beyond a 50 mile radius of the zoo. There are roughly 3,400 formal camps, workshops, and classes each year, accounting for more than 200,000 of the zoo’s visitors. Average weekday attendance is more than 3,000, while Saturdays exceed 7,000. The impact naturally goes beyond an analysis of visits.

From a monetary standpoint, the statistics are also significant. The economic impact in the Midlands region has been calculated at $148 million, resulting in about 1,800 jobs. Funding comes from three main sources: ticket sales, meetings, and classes (69 percent); zoo memberships (12 percent); and tax revenues from Richland and Lexington Counties (19 percent). Financial support exceeds that of IPTAY, Gamecock Club, and the ETV Endowment combined. Household memberships, which exceed 42,000 translate to more than 200,000 individuals.

Riverbanks has been in the news lately, reporting that it will be transferring its two remaining elephants to zoos that can provide more of a herd environment. Experience bears out the fact that elephants in captivity need to exist in groups of three or more. One of the elephants has exceeded the normal life expectancy—48 years old vs. 45—and the other is 37 years old. The long-range plan is to replace them with white rhinos in the summer of 2020. The startup of that project will consist of two females and one male, with plans to add to the herd over the next few years. White rhinos have an average life span of 40 years.

Riverbanks strives to be a good citizen in the community. For example, Fort Jackson graduates are offered free admission every Thursday. Also, zoo Staff does a monthly trash cleanup along the Saluda River, alternating between the Richland and Lexington County riverfronts.

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