Man vs. wild

Man vs. wild

ARTHUR — In James Aikman's dream of a tourist attraction, families would leave their computers and TVs behind for a few hours and take a spin together through his drive-through wildlife park.

But not everybody is thrilled with the proposed Aikman Wildlife Adventure, a zoo/park Aikman hopes to open two miles south of Arthur in the heart of East Central Illinois' Amish country in the spring of 2016.

A 30-year-old Arthur-based bank loan officer, Aikman said the idea for this development — which would include both a walk-through zoo and a drive-through wildlife area in which people could feed roaming animals out of their car windows — first came to him in a dream in October 2013.

After he had the same dream a second night in a row, he came to see it as God-inspired, he said.

Urbana attorney Kent Follmer, who is representing surrounding land owners opposed to the project, has a long list of concerns: public safety, animal welfare and the impact on area farming operations, for starters.

"It starts out to be a dream from God, and I'm thinking, the (county) board should listen to more than a dream," Follmer said.

In the middle of this controversy is the Moultrie County board, which will be asked to decide next month on a change in the county's zoning ordinance that could move Aikman Wildlife Adventure a step closer to becoming a dream-come-true.

Aikman said the proposed site is 45 acres — part of a 140-acre tract of farmland he has under contract — a mile west of another big area tourist attraction, the Great Pumpkin Patch.

"This is something that we have been working on for about a year-and-a-half now, my wife and I and some of our family members," he said.

'Big predators' a ways off

Aikman said the zoo/park would be open from March through November and include a parking area.

The drive-through area would have animals such as deer, bison, llamas and camels, he said.

The walk-through zoo area would include a petting zoo for kids, a large aviary with several types of birds and, initially, such animals as fox, bobcats, kangaroos and wallabies, with many animals coming from other petting zoos and drive-through parks, Aikman said.

In the future, he envisions adding other wild animals — among them: larger predators that have been confiscated by the government — with a goal of making these grounds a new home for them, he said.

"We would not be bringing on any big predators for multiple years, at the very least," he added.

In response to some of the animal welfare concerns, Aikman said there would be a big barn and other enclosed areas for animals to get out of bad weather. There would also be cameras throughout the grounds that would be monitored by park/zoo staff to help stop people from feeding animals, say, a candy bar, instead of feed pellets.

A key part of his long-range financial outlook for the zoo/park is building on tourism in the Arthur area, Aikman said.

In the eight months Aikman Wildlife Adventure would be open a year, "we could definitely bring in 30,000 to 40,000 (people), especially looking at everything that goes on in the area already," he said.

To encourage families to visit the park, Aikman said the admission would be kept at about movie rates: $10 for adults and $7 for kids.

The arguments against

Follmer said he was hired initially by a land owner whose property is surrounded by the proposed park on three sides, but he now has 18 clients objecting to Aikman's plans.

Five weeks ago, he said, he knew nothing about zoo law, but long hours of research have changed that.

Among the major concerns, he says, is that Aikman has zero experience running a zoo. And Moultrie County officials haven't yet had much time to consider the far-reaching implications of what is before them — first, a proposed change that would broaden a section of the zoning ordinance to allow for a zoo/wildlife park as a special land use under certain conditions. If that is approved at the county board's meeting April 9, then Aikman's next step would be to apply for a special-use permit for his zoo/park.

Some of the other concerns Follmer lists: Aerial crop spraying and noise and dust from tractors stand to affect the health of the animals in Aikman's park, and the sewage and zoo byproduct chemicals could affect farm production in the area.

The additional traffic on top of what is already generated by the Great Pumpkin Patch in the fall raises safety concerns during the harvest season, particularly in a community where there is significant horse and buggy traffic.

Plus, Follmer said, there stands to be substantial impact to public roads and potential drainage issues.

The nightmare scenario

Yet another safety concern: Follmer pictures the possibility of a farmer encountering an escaped tiger in a cornfield.

"What happens when there is going to be an escape? Who is going to catch the tiger?" he asks.

Best-case scenario: The county board will do nothing to move this project forward and Aikman will drop his plans, Follmer said. In the event that doesn't happen, he and his clients are prepared to appeal a county board decision favorable to the zoo/park to the circuit court, he said.

What he hopes, Follmer said, is that the county board will at least slow down and wait for a proposed change in state law (SB 1824) regarding possession of dangerous animals to work its way through the legislative process, because if it's adopted, it could affect any county decisions regarding Aikman's project.

Aikman said his plans for the zoo/park already address some concerns, such as drainage and setback from the property lines, that have been expressed.

An engineer is working on a water management plan for the property, he said, and there wouldn't be any buildings encroaching on property lines.

"We have told people that we want to be good neighbors. We don't want people to be upset with us," he added. "There are just a lot of false assumptions, misinformation, and if we could sit down and show them exactly what we're doing, it would not be quite what they think it would be."

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k8lynn11 wrote on March 25, 2015 at 7:03 am

I grew up in this area, and its completely sad that people would rather have a strip club in the area that is bringing in so much negative and herion, drugs that are killing our youth, kids that I went to school with, then have such a positive attraction such as a zoo. It would bring people to the community, which is more money for the other businesses and more jobs created.h

sweet caroline wrote on March 25, 2015 at 11:03 am

The Aikmans admit they have zero experience running a zoo.  This isn't like adopting a pet.  The animals at the zoo will need constant care.  A large number of staff will need to be trained and certified.  I think it's a nice idea, but I don't think it's feasible.  I'm concerned about the wellbeing of the animals AND the people who come to see them.

K.Speas wrote on March 25, 2015 at 4:03 pm

They may have no experience but there are many people who do have experience. Yes this is a rather unheard of idea for this area but this can be done. It will be work and hard work at that but with the proper dedicatation and resource this dream can become a reality. We are told to dream big to chase our dreams to go out and accomplish our dreams, our goals. Why should his dream be less than others dreams. Without dreams our country would not be as it is. Without dreams Michael Jordan would not have been a great athlete, without dreams we would have not made it to the moon, the list goes on and on. This venture is definitely attainable. With time, information, proper communication, resouces, dedication, and hard work this is feasible. I am sure people thought the same thing when C.H.I was first thought up, but now look. The opportunities this can bring about can be great.

Big Dreamer wrote on March 25, 2015 at 7:03 pm

Sure, Dream Big!! Plenty of entrepreneurs, with plenty of money to burn, have these dreams all the time. Looks like James also had a couple from God himself so his dreams trump mere mortals I guess.

There is so many things wrong with this. He has admitted himself, he has never done this before. But yet he will have all kinds of experts along the way to help him. The first expert is the young Amish man that owns the Camel in the picture here. His 8th grade education and several hooved animals he has owned for ten years or so makes him tops so far at the Zoo to nowhere.

Let’s look also at several of the other big ventures that Moultrie County has witnessed in the recent past. Hey, how about Eagle Creek Resort? Remember all the hope and hype that the same Moultrie board drooled over. (Because the board’s vote will come solely from more supposed revenue for Sullivan Businesses from Tourism)  How about Jibby’s revival with Doug Wilson and all the big woop-tee-do over that big city designer from Trading Spaces?  How long did that last? Let’s not forget all the businesses that have left the squares all over small town America. Add to that the disappearing attendances of County Fairs, Carnivals and Street festivals all over the state too, and you have another reason the zoo is a bad idea. Ask Rockome Gardens about how big a draw their petting zoo has been over the last 10-15 years or their attendance figures in general.

Sure the Zoo would be a novelty for some, but the attendance figures he is projecting are ludicrous… and where do these figures come from anyway? But what happens when this venture fails, because it will. The tourism to this area is mostly white hairs from parts unknown. They come to browse the antique stores and candle shops and then maybe hit Yoder’s for lunch or dinner. They aren’t going to go see the animals there, because they have seen all that before. During the fall, the zoo would be competing with the Pumpkin Patch too. Parents would be forced to make a decision to attend one or the other, because they are not paying for both. I am fairly sure the Pumpkin Patch wins that battle every time.

The biggest concern should be for the animals themselves. Aikman has stated he would like to model his park after the San Diego Zoo. Can you see that happening anytime soon?  We are talking about a multi-million dollar complex, not a start-up petting zoo in the middle of a Corn field with big hopes of being a major zoo someday. Because exactly where is the money coming from? Well, other than the fact that Grandma owns half of the bank where you and your father both work, you have the sponsors. Aikman plans on having sponsors donating money and in turn the sponsor gets their name on a plaque or big fake rock for a set number of years. That’s a good idea, because if I see a rock in front of a camel display that says CHI Overhead doors, I’m probably going to replace my garage door with one of theirs soon after my visit. He is not going to get these sponsors folks. Who would back this venture with the money he is looking for on a plan that has so many “what ifs”? Not to mention, how many big businesses inside of a 25-30 mile area around Sullivan and Arthur are even available to sponsor anyway?  Maybe he expects National Sponsorship? Maybe he will get Coke and Pespi in a war to finance the whole venture?

Hey, a guy can dream right?

Southpaw wrote on March 25, 2015 at 8:03 pm

Fantastic, Big Dreamer, you are spot on.

A big dream that is paid for by others, sponsors. Anyone have an extra $900,000 just laying around? If so, you can have the petting zoo named after you!! When your child gets salmonella or bit by one of the animals, your name or company name will be associated with the illness or injury, great investment!  

Arthur's zoo being compared to San Diego Zoo? Be realistic! 

I have many dreams myself.  The dream that comes to me night after night is a million dollars. Anyone want to sponsor my dream? I dream it, so it is meant to be, right?

 

 

supporter 1 wrote on March 26, 2015 at 11:03 am

The problem here is those who are opposing this wildlife park are not willing to look at the benefits that a project such as this could and will present for the area. The strongest opposition has already admitted they would have no problem with this if it were at a different location. This obviously destroys all their concerns for the welfare of the animals as well as the farm ground concerns. This also means all their complaints of increased traffic is null and void because obviously they would be ok with it if it increased the traffic in someone else's back yard. As for sewage disposal and byproduct produced by the animals at the zoo, this is more commonly referred to as fertilizer. I don't know where you all come from but around here if you want to know what happens to manure, drive through the countryside and stick your nose out the window. This horrible stuff is spread all over our fields. The bottom line is you weren't the one that had this great idea and won't benefit financially, so you are opposed to it. Why don't you spend your time speaking out against all the things such as Drug and Alcohol abuse and try change the things that will and are actually negatively influencing our society. SUPPORT THE AIKMAN WILDLIFE ADVENTURE!!!!

Big Dreamer wrote on March 26, 2015 at 1:03 pm

Supporter 1,

 

The way I have read it, the question was posed to the group supporting it, if they removed their concerns and tabled their protests and Aikman agreed to move it... would they go quietly? The lawyer representing them said something to the effect of "they probably would". This was an answer given in the moment of asking in front of the zoning board. Sounds like to me the lawyer was responding without actually checking with the group he represents. Because he added something like "I can't be sure they would agree to it". So it’s not true that they would be fine with it if it wasn’t in their back yard.

 

Secondly, I would like you to explain all the benefits that this project would bring.

 

This project will be over within ten years. He is not going to make money at it. He won’t get the sponsorships, so he will be paying out of pocket. How many sponsors does he have on paper right now? Ask him that and see what he responds with? Nobody is going to pay to go to a giant petting zoo with a few camels and some fox. After it fails it will be chopped and parceled out into Arthur's first housing suburb, all the trees and ponds will already be there, and you will only have to pave the parks road. The Moultrie puppets will rezone for that too. But that solves the Amish housing shortage, and Aikman will probably get more per acre for the land than he gave. ;)

 

Your ending suggesting to spend our time protesting against all negative things such as Drug and Alcohol abuse made me smile, great attempt at a re-direct. You should write for the hometown paper.

 

supporter 1 wrote on March 26, 2015 at 6:03 pm

Big Dreamer,

All businesses in the Arthur area stand to gain from the increase in tourism this park would bring. I understand if this may not be something you would visit, but I believe you can only speak for yourself. In order to generate sales a business must have customers, the increase of tourism brings new customers into the area and the opportunity to make a sale to someone who may not have come here for any other reason. As sales increase it also brings demand of product therefore increasing the need of employees and hours of labor so this also benefits the general public who work at the Arthur area businesses.
As for your approach on the success of the park. Not everyone sees this park the same way you do. There are lots of people who visit zoos and wildlife parks around the world, that is a proven fact. This could be used as an educational tool for school kids or just for the pure enjoyment of watching different species of animals not native to the United States. Since you know this could never be successful, one must assume you have owned and operated such a park as this. If you haven't then your stance on the success of this park is nothing more than your opinion. Do your research, how many people visit the various zoos and parks already in existence in the USA? You will find many who have been open and successfully operating for many years. I am also sure there are some that weren't successful but I believe every business venture is different.
I must also assume when you say that no business would ever sponsor such a park as this, that you must own all the businesses in the area since you feel like you can make their decisions for them. Each business owner can decide for themselves weather they wish to become a sponsor for this park. I have not heard that anybody has forced any business to become a sponsor, I have seen papers that can be picked up voluntarily by business owners that would give them the opportunity to become a sponsor.
You obviously don't have the same vision for this park the Aikmans' have, and this is obviously not the business or job you would choose. That's fine nobody asked you to start up or take care of this park. Is it too much to ask that people respect each other's positions and work together to come up with the best result?

P.S. You are entitled to your OPINION please make sure you state them as such, don't put words in other peoples' mouths.

Southpaw wrote on March 26, 2015 at 8:03 pm

Supporter 1

You need to heed your own advice about putting words into other people's mouths. You stated:"All businesses in the Arthur area stand to gain from the increase in tourism this park would bring." How do YOU know this? Have you spoken with all the businesses in the area? You would be surprised how many Amish are opposed to the zoo, Amish people with businesses. I have recently spoken to a few who say they are tired of the focus on tourism (and I add they own businesses). Contrary to popular belief some of the Amish are tired of being exploited. 

In response to your comments about  bringing people to the area that will spend money that will mean an increase in employees and work hours for them. Seriously, have you ever noticed the people who came to the town to see Amish, etc. on a SUNDAY. Perhaps money would be better spent forcing businesses to stay open on Sundays since the literature promoting Arthur doesn't state, most everything is closed on Sunday. 

Zoo animal waste and bedding is consider a toxic material and has to be hauled away. Imagine, god forbid, they decide to get an elephant, they create around 300 pounds of manure a day! You say it would good fertilizer but if any of the manure is infected with disease (E. coli, etc.), runoff  can potentially infect area livestock and in turn humans if the animal is used for consumption. E. coli in garden type plots is not an uncommon event. How many times have we been told to return fruits and vegetables to the store because they are contaminated? E. coli is something that is not easily eradicated and people will be exposed to it in the park. I think we can agree it's difficult to keep little kids from putting their hands in their mouth.

You state: "I must also assume when you say that no business would ever sponsor such a park as this, that you must own all the businesses in the area since you feel like you can make their decisions for them."  You state that Big Dreamer is attempting to "make decisions for the businesses in the area." I assume you realize that you are attempting to make a decision for EVERYONE with your statement?

Are you aware how long it will take trees to not look like toothpicks stuck in the middle of a field? But we can all look forward to the 100-300 utility poles they said would be put up and a moat dug. There is no way that type of construction will NOT affect neighboring farms and their drainage, not to mention the asthetics of the country side.

This zoo will end up like Rockome, closed. Wouldn't Rockome be a better option for viewing caged animals for pure human enjoyment? Why is the community not courting people to open it instead of trying to support a business that is not needed and bound to fail? 

There is SO MUCH more with the zoo proposal than the money that businesses will be making. There is a huge list of reasons the zoo should not be permitted and you obviously prefer or choose to be unaware of the huge negative impact a zoo will have.

We all have dreams, some are just totally unrealistic. 

Big Dreamer wrote on March 26, 2015 at 8:03 pm

Oh yeah, people will be lined up to go to the stores in Arthur and Sullivan on their way to and from the Park,  just like they do before the Arthur Fireworks every year. Don’t forget about all the Tourism business the Moultrie/Douglas County fair generates before their huge attendance numbers of the last 10 years. How many businesses in Downtown Eurekea, MO get visited before all the families go to Six Flags over Mid-America? I'm obviously no expert, but with the exception of hotels, restaurants and Wal-Mart, I would guess not very many, if there are even any left.

 

Assuming it's going to generate a lot of business for all the local establishments around here is not a safe bet. Because it is, of my OPINION, that the word will spread fairly quickly through many avenues that the glorified petting zoo isn’t worth the price of a movie, because that's what he compared admission price to. Have you been to a lot of movies lately seeing families of four or more?  Because, in my OPINION, people aren’t going to pay that kind of money to go through Aikman’s park.

 

Also, the Zoo's you are talking about are parks that have been established for many, many years. They have exhibits and animals that people actually want to go see, because they are exotic and a real experience. For example the Great Ape house in Saint Louis or the Penguin house. And the kicker with that Zoo... it's free!! So tell me again who is going to go to Aikman's "Zoo" in the middle of a corn field and pay to see a Donkey, a Bison, and some foxes? Because that is what he is starting with. How is he going to progress to a Zoo like the one he says he is modeling his after in San Diego?

 

Of course these are just my OPINIONS, I don’t want to go around putting words in other people’s mouths.

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