The Oatland Island Wildife Center is only a few miles from her home, but hairdresser Kai Moser, 25, has never gone to see it.
The place doesn’t sound that interesting, the Wilmington Island resident says. “I know I pass by it all the time but I never think to stop,” she says.
And when she’s talked to friends about the wildlife center, “no one wanted to go,“ Moser says.
In a recent brochure, Oatland officials billed their 175-acre center as “one of the premier wildlife parks in the entire Southeast.”
Created in 1974 by the Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools, it cares for owls, deer, cougars, eagles, alligators, bison — more than 110 animals, most of them native to Georgia and most living in outdoor enclosures under tall trees.
But if the natural setting is attractive, Savannah residents have found plenty of reasons not to visit the wildlife center.
Joseph Marinelli, president of the Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau says that when he first moved to Savannah, he asked, “What is that Oatland Island?” The answer: “‘It’s crappy.’ So I never went.”
And Oatland’s director, Chris Gentile notes that, after the wildlife center closed so that toxic DDT could be removed from the soil, “many people got the sense it never reopened.”
But lately, Oatland’s image has been changing — fast.
For starters, the school district, in January 2007, hired Gentile, a bright, young animal expert, away from the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C.
Gentile opened new alligator and crane exhibits, created more readable trail maps, put animal caretakers on his staff and hired several “guest services” staffers to help visitors find their way around Oatland’s winding trails.
In June 2007, he worked with the school board, to changed the center’s name.
The old name, “Oatland Island Education Center” — sounded like a boring conference center for teachers, some Oatland supporters said. The new name, “Oatland Wildlife Center of Savannah,” was more appealing.
In addition, about six months ago, Gentile posted eye-catching signs along President Street Expressway that showed off some of the animals hidden behind the trees. The signs featured a black bear standing on its hind legs, the tawny face of a couger and another cougar padding toward a moss-draped oak tree.
The campaign to promote Oatland Island kicked into high gear several months ago, when Gentile persuaded Convention and Visitors Bureau president, Marinelli, to join the marketing committee of a key support group, Friends of Oatland Island.
Now, Marinelli has targeted Oatland’s principal market, calling it: “rubber tire tourism.“ These visitors live in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas and visit Savannah by car, Marinelli explains.
And to attract them and “create some buzz about Oatland Island,” Marinelli says, his Convention and Visitors Bureau now promotes the wildlife center on its website.
The committee also wants to reach visitors who spend a couple of days in Savannah’s historic district and then are ready to explore. It just makes sense. “On the way to Tybee, you stop at Oatland Island,” Marinelli says.
The marketing committee also promotes Oatland Island to schools, to the military “and to the people who’ve driven by Oatland Island a thousand times on the way to Tybee,“ Marinelli says.
The online promotion is paying off. Since June 30, the center has averaged more than 50 referrals a day from the website, Gentile says. And the center’s attendance has soared — from 58,000 visitors in 2007 to 75,000 this year.