Posted on Fri, Dec. 11, 2009
KC Zoo marks centennial by looking ahead
By MATT CAMPBELL
The Kansas City Star
Just ending its first 100 years of evolution, the Kansas City Zoo — bigger, more energetic, but ever more hungry for funds — is looking ahead.
Its birthday is officially Sunday (more on that later), and the Swope Park institution is celebrating a good year of more attendance, more Friends of the Zoo memberships and more visitor satisfaction.
And with next spring’s return of a polar bear exhibit and penguins on the way in 2012, more good news is surely due to floe — er, flow — in.
Meanwhile, it was a more political animal that the Friends leadership voted this week to introduce — a new political action committee to raise money for the care and influencing of lawmakers in Jefferson City.
The private Friends of the Zoo organization, which manages the publicly owned animal park under contract with the city, wants ultimately to capture their own tax-revenue stream away from City Hall’s perennial budget pressures.
Cutbacks in the city budget forced the zoo to make do with just $3.1 million from the city this year.
“We are going to have to take drastic steps if we cannot secure funding for the zoo from the city,” said Carol Hallquist, Friends chairwoman. “We have animals to feed.”
More of them all the time. From the first four lion cubs acquired from a circus in 1909, the menagerie has grown to more than 1,000 animals.
Meanwhile, the zoo is experiencing a renaissance.
Attendance climbed back to more than 500,000 this year, up 13 percent from last year through October. Officials are projecting 600,000 visitors next year, primarily on the strength of the polar bear’s debut slated for the spring.
Dues from Friends of the Zoo memberships are up 15 percent, and the goal is to increase that by 16 percent next year. Customer satisfaction, measured through visitor surveys, also has improved in recent years.
The zoo has also been successful in raising millions of private dollars, which resulted in a carousel and a new front entrance, among other things. The $8 million penguin display to open in 2012 also will come from private money.
Smoky, shaky start
It’s a long way since its opening, which the zoo’s own history dates to Dec. 13, 1909.
A 1909-1910 report of the park board says the same thing, as does a zoo brochure that appears to be from the 1930s. This week the Kansas City Council’s resolution honoring the zoo’s 100th birthday said Dec. 13.
But old newspaper clips in park department archives show the zoo’s first century started off with a problem.
The park board had to delay the opening of the original zoo building to fix a faulty heating system that was filling its basement with smoke.
The first animals — those little lions — did not move in until nearly Christmas, and it was not until Dec. 27, 1909, that city comptroller Gus Pearson declared the new zoo in Swope Park open to visitors.
“But we have not much in the way of exhibits to show them,” Pearson acknowledged then. “The big place looks dreary with its array of empty cages, and if people who volunteered to contribute animals and birds will begin sending them in, they will be appreciated.”
A “soft opening,” as marketing folks today would say.
In the early days, that 190-by-90-foot building — which this past spring was refitted into an indoor rain forest — contained the entire zoo.
At first the collection was little more than a couple of buffalo, a fox, a wolf, a wildcat, a few monkeys and some birds.
Now the place is just over 200 acres, including its widely acclaimed and widely sprawling African exhibit.
But why quibble if Dec. 13 is not the true anniversary?
“We’ve been celebrating for almost a year now,” said Kathy Smith, head of the zoo’s centennial committee.
Tired of lean seasons
Funding for daily operations has been a challenge, and now the zoo is bracing for the Kansas City budget season.
The Friends are asking for a $4 million “management fee” next year from a city budget that is facing a $62 million deficit. The Friends’ contract had called for the subsidy to reach $5.2 million in 2010.
This fiscal year, a shrunken city subsidy still accounted for nearly 40 percent of the zoo’s revenue.
The zoo’s director, Randy Wisthoff, wants the city to issue some of the remaining bond authorization to pay for projects ahead of the zoo’s professional accreditation review next year. Fixes are needed at the veterinary building, the elephant barn and the sea lion pool.
But the acting city manager, Troy Schulte, said this week he does not want to sell any more bonds — and incur more interest debt — during the city’s current budget crunch.
Mayor Mark Funkhouser and others argue the zoo is a regional asset that should be supported regionally and not just by Kansas City taxpayers.
While the zoo does benefit from suburban memberships and from earnings taxes paid by people who work in the city but live elsewhere, Kansas City zoo supporters hope for a taxing district someday like the ones that support the St. Louis and Denver zoos.
Kansas City Zoo officials are considering three fresh funding scenarios: a metropolitan zoo district, a zoo district limited to Kansas City or a county sales tax. All would require enabling state legislation and voter approval.
Hayley Hanson, head of the Friends board’s funding committee, estimates that a one-eighth-cent sales tax in Jackson, Clay and Platte counties could generate $17 million a year.
The new political action committee is seen as a first step toward making any of those things happen.
Money raised by the political committee would have to be kept separate from zoo operations and would be subject to state disclosure laws.
“We are looking at long-term strategies and what we can do to get out from under the city,” Hanson said. “We want to have funds raised to make sure that we can push our agenda forward.”
For now, Hallquist said the Friends of the Zoo are pleased that the animal park is showing measurable improvement even in tough times.
“We feel really great about the staff here and the leadership,” she said. “Our continued struggle will be financing the zoo and keeping it in the tradition that we know it can be for the next 100 years.”
What’s new at the zoo
* The original 1909 building, left, has been transformed into the Tropics exhibit, which opened earlier this year. It features several species of monkeys and other animals.
* A polar bear — just one, to start — will inhabit a new exhibit beginning next spring. The exhibit is designed to accommodate up to three bears, but Nikita, right, on loan from the Toledo Zoo, initially will have more than 9,500 square feet to roam all by himself.
* Friends of the Zoo is raising money in hopes of opening a penguin exhibit in 2012.
Today, Sunday at the zoo
* 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.: Free photo with Santa with a donation to Harvesters; Tropics building.
* 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Free admission
* 10 a.m.: Proclamation and plaque dedication; Tropics building.
* Noon to 2 p.m.: Cupcakes, animal and history presentations; zoo lobby.
@ Go to KansasCity.com for a photo gallery.
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