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City wants Lake Superior Zoo to set new course

The zoo train passes by the Polar Shores exhibit at the Lake Superior Zoo on June 18. The exhibit has been closed since the June 2012 flood. What to do with the area is a major question for the zoo. (Steve Kuchera /

Legislators who included Wade Stadium and the NorShor Theatre into the $1 billion state bonding bill had one suggestion for Duluth when they turned down requests to help pay for improvements at the Lake Superior Zoo: Get a better plan.

“We have to have a plan,” said Duluth attorney Kevin Walli, the city’s lobbyist at the state Capitol. “A thoughtful plan on what our needs are.”

To that end, the Duluth City Council voted Monday to enter into an agreement with ConsultEcon Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., firm that specializes in zoos, museums and other visitor attractions. The cost of the arrangement will not exceed $59,000, with the money coming from the city’s pre-existing tourism tax.

Zoo attendance is down since the 2012 flood ravaged the facility. Two upcoming years of Grand Avenue reconstruction figure to adversely affect operations further, said Jim Filby Williams, the city’s director of public administration.

“This is a very opportune moment to chart a new, more sustainable course,” Filby Williams said.

Councilor Jennifer Julsrud agreed.

“We should look at the flood as this great opportunity to rethink the way the zoo functions,” she said.

She envisions an arrangement of the zoo and Fairmount Park as one akin to Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo in Rochester, Minn.

“It’s this beautiful connection between outdoor environment and native Minnesota animals,” she said. “You go there and it feels comfortable and at ease. They’re the animals we see, often from a distance, and a lot of their raptors have been injured and wouldn’t be able to survive otherwise. It feels good.”

Julsrud went on to say she repeatedly hears from people having had a sad or unpleasant experience at the Lake Superior Zoo. Taking advantage of the park’s falls and other amenities is the part of the aim to restore vibrancy to the zoo and its component park.

“Most of Fairmount Park is co-located with the zoo,” Filby Williams said. “If you look historically, before the zoo utilized all the space, the park was a uniquely powerful and popular magnet for community life in West Duluth.”

The park is a natural bowl with a meandering creek, offering an appeal the city, the zoological society and the consultants figure to accentuate. The process will include the next eight to 10 weeks of heavy planning and development.

Filby Williams mentioned three distinct aims:

  • Raising the appeal of the zoo and park to tourists and residents
  • Putting the city and the zoo on more financially sustainable path, both as far as maintenance and operation
  • Wanting to advance educational goals since the zoo has a long-standing history of supporting conservation education

One advantage as the process unfolds is the East Coast consultants are not merely designers, Filby Williams said. Rather, they’re versed in long-term plans that are grounded in business and financial reality.

“We’re going to harvest lessons learned by thousands of communities who have wrestled with very similar problems,” Filby Williams said.

The end product will be three distinct scenarios. Once the long-range plan reaches the City Council, Filby Williams expects a vigorous debate that can answer the question, “What is the highest and best use of this special place and this important zoo facility for the common good for the next 50 years.”