Proposed Riverbanks Zoo and Garden Expansion to Build Upon Economic Momentum in South Carolina

For Immediate Release: March 30, 2023

Palmetto State's largest gated attraction kicks off 50th anniversary countdown and seeks support from Richland and Lexington Counties to support future growth

Columbia, S.C.Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, South Carolina’s largest gated attraction, will turn 50 on April 25, 2024, and is launching a year-long countdown in April amid more zoo baby announcements, exciting news for conservation, and a request for Richland and Lexington County councils to approve a bond in support of Phase Two of its Bridge to the Wild expansion. Completion of this project will increase Riverbanks’ annual economic impact to over $175 million, create 500 additional jobs in the community, and boost annual attendance to over 1.6 million.
“Phase Two of Riverbanks’ Bridge to the Wild development will boost tourism and the economy at major time of growth in South Carolina—bringing one of the area’s most treasured natural resources, the Saluda River, to the forefront of the guest experience,” says Tommy Stringfellow, president and CEO of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. “Fifty years is a major achievement and a great opportunity to celebrate our successes as one of our state’s top destination attractions, a powerful economic driver in our region, and a trusted education and conservation resource.” 

Highlights of the Phase Two expansion will include an all-new shared species habitat for orangutans and other endangered primates, a first of its kind multi-purpose facility on the banks of the Saluda, and a South Carolina nature preserve inviting guests to see some of the state’s native wildlife up close including black bears, red wolves, and bald eagles.
Since the opening of the Darnall W. and Susan F. Boyd Aquarium & Reptile Conservation Center on March 2, Riverbanks has welcomed more than 110,000 visitors in less than a month—numbers not seen since 2017-2019 following the last expansion—with more than 50 percent traveling from beyond 50 miles. 

“The completion of this privately funded, incredible new facility is a testament to the progress and impact Riverbanks has on the region and beyond, and the subsequent surge in tourist visits is the milestone we wanted to reach in order to go back to the counties and ask for their support of the next chapter in our history,” continues Stringfellow. 


Previous support from the two counties propelled Riverbanks from a local attraction to a leader in tourism and an economic engine, consistently welcoming more than one million visitors and dramatically increasing the local economic impact by 250% to $149 million per year. 

For nearly 50 years, strategic investments in capital projects have allowed Riverbanks to develop award-winning exhibits and impactful conservation programs that attract visitors and contribute to the economy and quality of life in the Midlands and state of South Carolina. Riverbanks’ status as one of the best zoos in the nation is the direct result of the nearly five decades-long public-private partnership with Richland and Lexington Counties, individual donors, and private corporations. 
“Our remarkable formula for success and partnership with Richland and Lexington Counties should be celebrated and safeguarded for the future of the animals and for the continued economic strength and vibrancy of our communities,” says Stringfellow.
Each year, Riverbanks provides a significant annual economic impact in South Carolina, of which Richland and Lexington Counties benefit tremendously. 

  • $148.7 million is pumped into the local economy each year. 
  • More than 500 employees.
  • Additional 1,800 jobs generated in the community.
  • Nearly $1 million in total tax revenue.
  • $51.7 million is spent annually by Riverbanks’ visitors from outside of Columbia— $11.8 million in accommodations; $16 million in food and beverage; and $13.3 million in retail.
  • Over 50% of Riverbanks’ visitors are tourists traveling from 50+ miles outside of Columbia, with 20% traveling from outside of the state.
  • More than 46,000 member households, representing over 210,000 individuals—26% from Lexington County; 22% from Richland County; 16% from out of state.


Once complete, Bridge to the Wild will transform both sides of the Saluda River into the state’s leading conservation resource in addition to elevating Riverbanks’ stature as the leader in family fun. The multi-phased strategic project includes: 

  • Phase One, a $32 million privately funded investment, began in 2019 with white rhinos returning to Riverbanks after 30 years, infrastructure improvements, and the new Darnall W. and Susan F. Boyd Aquarium & Reptile Conservation Center. Two additional project announcements are slated for mid-2023. Phase One which is fully funded, is made possible through Riverbanks’ earned revenue and in partnership with the State of South Carolina, The Boyd Foundation, Riverbanks Society, and private donors. 
  • Phase Two includes a transformational expansion of the Zoo’s footprint that will optimize the guest experience, increase opportunities for guest engagement, better connect guests to conservation and highlight the beauty of the Saluda River. This expansion includes an orangutan habitat, South Carolina nature preserve, enhanced lion and tiger habitats, and a one-of-a-kind multipurpose facility on the banks of the Saluda River. 


In the coming months, Riverbanks will be seeking approval from both Richland and Lexington County councils for a bond in support of the development of Phase Two of Bridge to the Wild. The bond would be issued by the Richland-Lexington Riverbanks Park District and spread evenly across the two counties based on assessed property value—resulting in an approximate $44.8 million investment by Richland County and $35.2 million by Lexington County. 
If approved, the bond will result in an estimated maximum cost of $7.20 in 2025 on $100,000 of assessed property value and will gradually decrease each year until it expires. Unlike other agencies that request bonds, a bond to Riverbanks is a direct economic multiplier across every sector of industry. The minor tax adjustment would not begin to impact property owners until 2024.


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About Riverbanks Zoo and Garden: Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is home to more than 3,000 magnificent and fascinating animals and one of America’s best public gardens. The Zoo opened on April 25, 1974, and for nearly five decades, has connected individuals, families and school children with the natural world. Riverbanks is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is recognized as a global leader in animal care and welfare, education, recreation, science and wildlife conservation. It is the mission of the Zoo and Garden to create meaningful connections and inspire actions that will have a lasting impact on conservation.