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Duluth asked to rethink zoo plans

Ozzie the desert tortoise struts past the pavilion at the Lake Superior Zoo. (News Tribune file photo)

An already approved plan to shrink the Lake Superior Zoo's footprint could be up for reconsideration soon.

Duluth City Council President Noah Hobbs has introduced a resolution requesting city administration to return the zoo to its original anticipated size prior to 2016, when councilors adopted new concept plan to expand neighboring Fairmount Park and make the zoo more walkable by drawing its animal exhibits closer together.

Hobbs said he plans to table the resolution when the council meets Monday, but he expressed hopes that it will spur further discussion about the zoo's future and how to make it more financially viable.

Zoo Director Erik Simonson, said the attraction is still struggling to recover from the 2012 flood. Prior to that destructive event, the zoo boasted annual attendance figures of 140,000 to 160,000. The flood forced the closure of some of the zoo's most popular exhibits, including the cornerstone Polar Shores display, and since then it has been unable to attract as many visitors, with annual attendance continuing to hover between 80,000 and 90,000 guests.

"In order for us to be a viable, sustainable institution going forward, we need to increase the number of folks returning to the zoo. And how do we do that? We have to get our exhibits back up and running," Simonson said.

Simonson took the helm at the zoo about 13 months ago, inheriting newly drawn plans to reshape its operations. The first step of that initiative called for the creation of a new Bear Country exhibit, but original cost estimates for the attraction have proven inadequate.

Bids for the proposed exhibit came in about 90 percent higher than was anticipated in 2016, Simonson told members of the Duluth City Council at a Thursday night agenda session meeting.

"I don't think it's anyone's fault. I think that is the nature of putting together a complex project. But the reality I have to deal with is: How do we pay for that?" he said.

The bear exhibit initially was expected to cost about $4.8 million, and Simonson said zoo staff have been working on a scaled-back plan for about a $4 million project that would be within reasonable financial reach.

"The fact of the matter is that when you start peeling off components of that exhibit, you really take away from the attractiveness of the exhibit and the usefulness of the exhibit in terms of what we can provide to the community in terms of education," he said.

However another alternative has emerged.

The 2016 plan called for the removal of the former structure that housed the Polar Shores exhibit, as it was located in the floodplain of Kingsbury Creek, which flows through the zoo. But Simonson said improvements to the Grand Avenue bridge have removed a previous bottleneck, dramatically shrinking the floodplain and placing the Polar Shores structure on safer ground.

"We could take that $4 million that we're sitting on right now — a mixture of public and private funds — we could revitalize it ... and we could create about seven new exhibits," he said, noting how much further the zoo could stretch its resources by reusing existing structures, including space on the east and west banks of the creek.

The catch is that much of the space Simonson hopes to reuse sits outside of the area the revamped zoo was proposed to occupy in 2016.

"I see a clear path forward if we can resolve this," he told the council.

Simonson also expressed confidence that if the zoo is allowed to reclaim the ground it needs, it could still work with the city to successfully accomplish another goal: namely, providing connections between the Willard Munger Trail below the zoo and the former Duluth Winnipeg & Pacific Railway and the Superior Hiking Trail above it.

Calling for a reality check, Simonson said: "Essentially the cost of the 2016 concept plan, now that we know the real cost is about $28 million. That was a component that was missing from the concept plan — a funding mechanism."

"As good as we all like to think we are, raising $28 million through a capital campaign is not realistic," he said.

Keith Hamre, interim chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth, said, "We're open to the conversation. But we respect the 2016 public process, so we want to make sure to loop the Parks Commission into that conversation, too."

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