The Lake Superior Zoo should be able to keep its doors open, thanks to a $200,000 stopgap subsidy approved by the Duluth City Council Monday night.
By a unanimous vote, the council passed a resolution providing the funds needed to sustain the zoo's operations through the end of this year.
"I would urge all my fellow councilors to support this," said At Large City Councilor Noah Hobbs. "It's no secret that the zoo has not recovered from the flood of 2012."
When Kingsbury Creek overflowed that year, it wreaked havoc on the zoo. It was forced to close for several weeks during what would normally be the zoo's peak season. The event and its aftermath depleted the zoo's available financial reserves and forced it to shed many of its popular attractions, including its polar bear, brown bear and cougar exhibits.
Nevertheless, Hobbs predicts better days for the zoo.
"I think it does continue to have a very bright future if we choose to continue to invest in it. We just went through a huge community process, with a lot of buy-in through community meetings, and there's about a $15 million new plan for the zoo moving forward," he said.
"I think it would be very short-sighted if this council decided not to provide this gap financing," Hobbs said.
Regarding the new $15 million concept plan that has been developed for the zoo, 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress said: "I think it is a good plan. I do think it provides an opportunity for the zoo to revitalize itself and refresh itself. I think we all understand that the future of the zoo does depend upon putting in place new attractions and new exhibits that will drive interest and attendance."
Council President Zack Filipovich agreed the zoo was overdue for some improvements.
"The last time a major investment was made to put a new major exhibit into place at the zoo was back in the early '90s. With the flood and everything else, I'm looking forward ... to real tangible progress at the zoo," he said
In addition to increasing the zoo's funding for 2016, the council also authorized the city to extend the deadline for the repayment of an outstanding $300,000 line of credit. The Lake Superior Zoological Society, which operates the zoo, was to have paid off the debt by Oct. 1 but will now have an extra year to make good on that obligation.
In January, the zoological society will receive a new infusion of cash, including $510,000 from tourism tax collections plus another $160,000 in state pass-through funding.
While Monday's resolution should provide the zoo a bit of breathing room, Sipress said much of its hardest work lies ahead.
"I think it's important that the zoo does return itself to break-even financial status. And I look forward to the zoological society launching the capital campaign that will be necessary to put in place the exhibits that will bring it back to that financial stability," he said.