1/9/2012 - Asheville's WNC Nature Center draws record crowd in 2011
by Karen Chávez - Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE -- In 2011, otters, cougars and bears were some of the city's most popular superstars.
The residents of the WNC Nature Center helped draw 92,000 human visitors in 2011, a record attendance since the center opened in the mid-1970s on a hilly site in East Asheville.
"This is the first time we have officially passed 90,000," said director Chris Gentile. "I looked back in the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) directories from the past 10 years since the Nature Center has been accredited, and attendance was never reported higher than 85,000."
A strong November and December helped put the Center up almost 5,000 guests over 2010, a 5 percent increase. The Nature Center is operated by the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department.
"With the 2020 Vision in hand and the steps we are already taking down the path to its completion, along with the extra marketing efforts by the Friends, we are successfully transforming and growing the Center," said Kimberly Brewster, executive director of the Friends of the WNC Nature Center.
"The WNC Nature Center -- Asheville's Wildlife Park, is well on its way to becoming the premier destination for engaging experiences with Southern Appalachian wildlife."
In November, the Nature Center unveiled its "2020 Vision: Wild Asheville" master plan, which includes plans to expand conservation efforts, add animal species, exhibits and educational space, and improve guest amenities and accessibility to meet ADA standards.
The announcement, along with some new features that have already come online, including the popular otter exhibit featuring Olive and Obiwan and the new cougar exhibit, might have contributed to the influx of visitors late in the year, Gentile said. He also sees a nationwide trend in increasing zoo visitation.
"Zoos provide a pretty economical way for families to spend the day," Gentile said. "And people are more environmentally conscious these days and zoos provide a way for people to connect more to nature and the animals they're hearing about that are making a comeback."
Membership in the Friends of the WNC Nature Center is also up, Brewster said, with some 2,700 family households, or roughly 18,000 members, which is up 500 families over the previous year.
"About 20 percent of the people who visited last year were members," Gentile said. "That's a pretty big impact, to have these people who are really committed to your institution."
Among other additions and improvements to the Nature Center are Balsam the striped skunk and Slate the Flemish giant rabbit at the barn, who were both introduced late last year, Gentile said, and have been very popular. A new habitat in the barn is also planned for housing rats, snakes and barn owls.
A new playground is also set to open by spring and upgrades are planned for the red wolf exhibit.