A preliminary concept plan unveiled Wednesday morning would shrink the footprint of the Lake Superior Zoo within Duluth’s historic Fairmount Park and improve access to public land, including Kingsbury Creek.

If adopted, the plan would reduce the zoo to about 10 acres, making it comparable to St. Paul’s Como Zoo in size.

About 9 acres of property within the zoo’s existing boundaries would be converted to park land, allowing for Fairmount’s transformation into a true “signature park” in the St. Louis River Corridor, said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration.

“But the effect of it is to open up much more space, because it opens up travel corridors that will allow a child in Norton Park to not only enter that 9 acres but to go straight from their backyard, under Grand Avenue on a safe bike-ped trail to a restored St. Louis River. And so kids from Riverside will be able to bike up here and travel under the road and go to the park, as well. So it’s as much about the connectivity it creates as the 9 acres of space that are converted,” Filby Williams said.

John Scott, president of the Lake Superior Zoological Society, said staff would work with architects and designers to make the best use of the zoo’s smaller footprint in a way that provides a rich environment for animals and maintains the facility’s accreditation.

Large exotic animals, including tigers and lions, would remain part of the mix.

Filby Williams predicted a more compact layout will appeal to visitors.

“One of the signal recommendations from a prior study was that we should increase the density of animal exhibits within the zoo’s footprint to be comparable to the density of exhibits at other zoos across the country,” he said. “So I think we and the society will certainly decide that some existing species will no longer be in the collection, and that some new species will be included. But I don’t expect a significant net change in the number of exhibits or the number of species. A reduction in the footprint does not necessitate that.”

Filby Williams described some new attractions that could be in the works.

“Going beyond a traditional zoo, the concept also features new destination outdoor play spaces in the zoo and in the adjoining park, including a new indoor play space that meets a long-standing need and wish of Duluth parents for indoor recreation time during our long winters,” he said.

Duluth Mayor-Elect Emily Larson said she has been working on this issue for about 18 months as city councilor.

“I am a supporter of implementing this new vision, this combined vision. And it will probably still move around a little bit … but we have a good concept even though there is still a lot to be worked out,” she said.

The estimated price tag for the project is about $15 million - less than half the cost of a more ambitious $40 million zoo master plan approved in 2008.

Filby Williams called the plan “aspirational.”

The city already has earmarked $2.7 million from a half-percent tax on sales of food, drink and lodging to be spent on the zoo and adjoining park property. Filby Williams said Duluth is seeking an additional $1.4 million for the zoo through a federal disaster resilience competition. And he noted that state Sen. Roger Reinert had initiated a $1.9 million request for state bonding money last year.

Reinert said he was surprised by Wednesday’s press conference about the zoo and was disappointed not to have been kept in the loop.

Nevertheless, he said: “I remain a very strong advocate for the zoo, and I’m interested to learn more about this new plan and to learn more about the funding puzzle.”

Reinert expressed frustration at the pace of progress at the zoo. He noted that while the city struggled to form a plan for the zoo, it turned back two time-sensitive grants that had been awarded - one for facilities and another for trail and activity development.

“It becomes a challenge to ask for those funds again,” Reinert said.

He said it’s a shame more hasn’t been done to help the zoo.

“I genuinely feel that they took a significant hit from the flood in 2012, and not only have they not really recovered, but they’ve been hindered in their recovery by this on-again, off-again, sometimes public, sometimes not planning process,” Reinert said. “It has been very difficult for them to move forward and for any of us who want to be helpful to assist in that process.”

Filby Williams said the concept plan still will require public input before the parks commission and Duluth City Council can move forward, with the council unlikely to act until February at the earliest. If the plan is adopted and funded, Filby Williams said it will probably lead to what he called “a six-year zoo renewal plan.”

From a financial standpoint, he observed: “It’s a long road to $15 million. It will take all of us developing this concept into the strongest possible plan. It will take all of us being 100 percent behind it, advocating for funding from local, state, federal and private sources.”

Scott said the zoological society will play an active role.

“I think the society can also use this as an opportunity to put together a proper capital campaign to make sure that this is a public-private partnership,” he said.