Projects at Minnesota, Como Park zoos go unfunded
ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Zoo and Como Park Zoo both had high hopes for the current legislative session. They’re coming away disappointed.
The Minnesota Zoo asked the Legislature for $30 million for a list of improvements. Half of it would have gone for updating the main entrance with a new building, visitor center and features to let visitors see animals even before they step inside the zoo in Apple Valley.
Lawmakers cut the list to $2.5 million to fix a faulty drainage system.
"We were very disappointed," Minnesota Zoo executive director Lee Emke said.
The Como Park Zoo in St. Paul wanted $11 million for renovating its gorilla exhibit and completing improvements to its polar bear exhibit. Gov. Tim Pawlenty line-item vetoed the money.
Now the two zoos have to come up with alternative plans. Their options are to put the projects on the back burner and perhaps try again later, seek additional private donations or do both.
"Both of the zoos have traditionally enjoyed legislative support," said Mike Hahm, director of the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. "I’m very hopeful there will be another opportunity to go back to talk about what our future means with the state."
Hahm and other Como Park Zoo officials were hoping for $11 million in bonding money to kick-start the second phase of a renovation project for the polar bear and gorilla exhibits. They planned to use $800,000 to complete the Polar Bear Odyssey — a state-of-the-art habitat with natural surfaces, a variety of pools, a breeding area and a lodge.
Construction on the $14.5 million project got going last fall. Zoo officials still plan to proceed with the project through its completion in 2010.
Most of the $11 million the Como Park Zoo sought would have gone to the gorilla exhibit. Zoo officials wanted to update the holding area, triple the exhibit’s size to accommodate a family, make the space more usable throughout the year and add natural elements. Those updates will have to wait while the zoo tries to find other ways to cover the shortfall.
"For the gorillas, it is more significant and hopefully a temporary setback," Hahm said. "We need to assess when the time is right to go back and look for legislative support."
Emke said Minnesota Zoo officials knew they had a small shot of getting the $30 million they requested. After discussing whether to give the zoo between $7.5 million and $8.5 million, lawmakers decided on $2.5 million.
"To have our number reduced to that level was quite frankly a disappointment," Emke said. "It will also have some impact probably on our ability to raise private funds."
The Minnesota Zoo had hopes of using $15 million for renovating the main entrance as part of a Heart of the Zoo redesign project. Private donations totaling $5 million from Cargill and other corporations will fund the design work to get the project started.
"We still intend to do that project," Emke said.