ASHEBORO — The world’s largest natural habitat zoo is getting bigger.
The North Carolina Zoo broke ground for the continent of Asia on Aug. 17. With 24 shovelers involved in moving dirt, someone commented that it could be the world’s largest groundbreaking.
“This is a historic moment for all of us and for the state,” said Pat Simmons, executive director and CEO of the NC Zoo. “Almost 50 years ago, the zoo began its journey. It was very visionary of the state.”
The zoo opened in 1974 with the Interim Zoo with a variety of species in a limited area. The idea was to develop continents with species endemic to the specific continent. Africa opened in 1980 and North America in 1994.
It’s been a long wait for Asia but the NC Legislature appropriated $75 million for zoo construction in the current budget. Plans are already under way for Australia and The Amazon.
“We have plenty of room to grow,” Simmons said. “Asia is just the start. It’s a long time coming but it’s the next step.”
Asia will be built on a 10-acre site and is expected to open in 2026, with possible soft openings before then.
Kristin Cooper, wife of Gov. Roy Cooper, said she grew up going to the zoo, attending regularly with her family as a girl. “This is going to be so fabulous. The schedule is to open in 2026 but with all the (groundbreaking) shovels, maybe we could move it up a bit.”
John Ruffin, board chair of the NC Zoo Society, the fund-raising arm of the zoo, said his organization has committed to raise $50 million for construction, with pledges already totaling $26 million.
Walker Moffitt, chair of the Zoo Council and Asheboro mayor pro tem, said the zoo is “very special to me,” having grown up a short distance away. With attendance at the zoo breaking 1 million visitors for the first time this year, Moffitt predicted that Asia would increase that to 1.5 million or more. What’s more, he said, the zoo hosts 100,000 school children annually at no cost.
The zoo is an important economic engine for the county, said Darrell Frye, chair of the Randolph County Board of Commissioners. Zoo visitors spend money here, he said, adding that “it’s a tool we use in recruitment” of business and industry.
Saying that “we’ve been too quiet about promoting the zoo,” Frye revealed that “we hope to see a hotel and convention center in close proximity to the zoo.”
Noting that the NC Legislature has stepped up after years of underfunding the zoo, NC Rep. Allen McNeill said, “As the zoo grows, so does Randolph County and the surrounding area. We could have a million and a half or more people” visiting the zoo every year.
Investments totaling $184 million come annually to the area as a result of the zoo, said NC Sen. Dave Craven. He compared the $34 million investment toward North America with the $75 million for the most recent expansion.
Secretary Pamela Cashwell of the NC Department of Administration called the forested area, soon to be Asia, “majestic, in a heavenly place. It’s amazing we live in a state like this. It’s why people are flooding into North Carolina.”
Cashwell explained that Administration works on all state construction and the design process. “We’ve been involved in this throughout the process. I look forward to the continued partnership.”
“One reason it’s the largest habitat zoo is we’ve been purchasing land for years,” said Secretary Reid Wilson of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which oversees everything from arts to the zoo. He said goals for the zoo are expert animal care, a good visitor experience, education and conservation.
“Every day the zoo provides wonder, awe and fun,” Wilson said. “Asia is a big deal and will expand wonder, awe and fun.”
Before the groundbreaking, Simmons recognized Rogers Construction, Little Diversified Architects and CLR Design for their partnership in the design and construction of Asia.
Facts about Asia
from the North Carolina Zoo website
The North Carolina Zoo has announced the new 10-acre Asia Continent is now in construction and planning to open in 2026. Asia will highlight iconic species such as tigers and Komodo dragons.
When will Asia open?
Asia is estimated to open in 2026.
What new species will it have?
Planned species: Tigers, white-cheeked gibbons, Komodo dragons, Chinese alligators, king cobras, wrinkled hornbills, red-crowned cranes, Asian small-clawed otters, cinererous vultures, Visayan warty pigs and Chinese giant salamanders. Additional species may be added while the site is developed.
Will there be additional restaurants and gift shops?
Yes, Asia will have a 300-seat indoor Café overlooking the tiger's habitat and a gift shop.
Will it cost extra to visit the Asia Continent?
No, it will be included in your admission price.
Where will the animals come from?
As an Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoo, our animals come from other AZA institutions.
How is this being funded?
Through a combination of state funds and private donors.