NC Zoo seeking $60 million for repairs and new exhibits

mquillin@newsobserver.comMay 1, 2014 

— With some facilities at the N.C. Zoo deteriorating or outdated, the park needs an infusion of about $60 million during the next 10 years, including $40 million in state bond funds, park leaders said Wednesday.

The money would be used to fix a growing backlog of maintenance problems and add some new attractions that would keep the zoo competitive with others around the country, zoo Director Dr. David Jones told a meeting of the Zoo Council, the park’s governing board.

When he was hired to run the N.C. Zoological Park in 1994, Jones said, the attraction was one of the best in the world.

“But we have begun to fall behind,” he said, and if the state doesn’t invest in the zoo as it has done with its aquariums, the Museum of Natural Sciences and some of its parks, “it will not be the institution that it was 20 years ago.”

Maintaining the zoo at the highest standard is not only important for ticket sales, zoo leaders say. Because so many animals are now transferred between different zoos, the facilities must keep up with changing standards in order to be eligible to receive new animals.

Any bonds sold for the zoo would be part of a larger bond package that would have to be approved by the legislature, which could happen no sooner than 2015, and then by North Carolina voters, possibly in the fall of 2015.

Drew Elliot, spokesman for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which includes the zoo, said any discussion of bonds as a fix for the zoo’s longstanding funding shortage is premature.

“The needs are substantial,” Elliot said. “and we need to figure out how to fund them. But it’s getting way ahead of the game to say to say that we’re even considering that as a form of financing at this point.”

State bonds helped get the zoo started in 1972, when North Carolina voters approved a $2 million issue to launch the project on nearly 1,400 acres of Randolph County land acquired by the N.C. Zoo, the entity’s private fundraising arm.

From 1976 to 1979, the General Assembly appropriated nearly $12 million to build the section of the zoo called Africa. At the time, the zoo planned to eventually show plants and animals from all seven continents in natural-habitat exhibits.

Construction began on the North America section in 1987.

Since then, the development of additional geographic regions has been postponed for lack of funding, and the zoo has at times had to scramble just to keep its current operation working properly and looking good to the three-quarters of a million visitors who come through the park each year.

Upkeep is a constant juggling act for Gerry Parker, facilities construction engineer for the zoo. There is never enough money in the park’s annual operating budget of about $18 million to do all the repairs and renovations the different departments ask Parker for. In some years, as it did in 2013, the legislature approves some money for that kind of work. And some years, the zoo has money in its Special Zoo Fund, which comes from any earnings in excess of revenue expectations.

At the moment, the fund contains about $2.2 million, but it’s earmarked for a list of projects including repairing the 650-foot wooden bridge that carries visitors over a lake at the entrance to Africa; improvements at the polar bear exhibit; replacement trams and buses to haul visitors; a radio system upgrade; and replacement of the irrigation pumps that keep water moving from the lake through all the animal exhibits in Africa that include water.

“If you don’t have water, everything dies,” Parker said.

A $40 million bond issue, along with $20 million in private funds to be raised by the Zoo Society, would allow the park to begin work on a 10-year plan to upgrade existing facilities and add new features that could increase the number of paying visitors coming to the park each year, Jones said.

Half – about $30 million – would go to replace the zoo’s largest single building, the 54,000-square-foot African Pavilion, which opened in 1984. In bad shape and considered outdated by current zoo standards, the building would be replaced by two or three smaller ones during a period of several years.

The new buildings might be used to create a small-scale Australasia, where visitors could see species such as Asian red pandas, snow leopards, Malayan tigers, white-handed Gibbons, binturongs, koalas, kangaroos and laughing kookaburras.

In the meantime, said Ken Reininger, general curator for the zoo, the park would like to add interest by converting the current Streamside exhibit to the Amazon.

Instead of species native to North Carolina, which would be moved to other areas within North America, the building and outdoor exhibit space could house colorful tropical fish, bright birds such as the macaw and toucan, and small mammals such as tamarinds and marmosets, and big poisonous snakes. Later, a second phase could be added with jaguars, giant anteaters and Andean condors.

“You have to keep it interesting, to keep people coming back,” Jones said.

Quillin: 919-829-8929

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