Stroll through the Lake Superior Zoo and you'll find lions and tigers, but no bears.
That will change soon, zoo director Erik Simonson said.
The plan is to open a new Bear Country exhibit by mid-summer, he said, and to have a new Polar Shores exhibit open by the end of the year.
"That's my goal," said Simonson, who also represents the Duluth area in the state Senate. "Now that might be a little aggressive because I'm learning from this side of things that the wheels of government turn pretty darn slow. But that's my goal is by the end of the year to have both of the exhibits open."
The Duluth City Council took a final step toward bringing bears back to the zoo on Tuesday by approving a resolution to pay an architectural firm to design the Polar Shores/Bear Country project.
The zoo hasn't had a bear since Trouble left in 2016. The Alaskan brown bear that earned its name by trying to break into the Alaska Zoo as a young bear was permanently moved from Duluth to a bear sanctuary at age 17.
The zoo's polar bear exhibit has stood empty since the June 20, 2012, flood left the exhibit under 14 feet of water and allowed a bear named Berlin to make a brief escape.
As city and zoo officials considered how to adjust to a post-flood zoo, the plan for a while was to shrink its footprint to the area east of Kingsbury Creek with the area to the west of the creek transformed into parkland. Now, the plan is to refurbish the sections west of the creek, including the bear exhibits.
Funding started with $1.9 million in state bonding dollars that were approved by the 2018 Legislature and a local match from tourism taxes. The council on Tuesday approved spending as much as $387,000 on a contract with architectural firm HGA to design the project. Refurbishment of the bear den can be done fairly quickly, Simonson said, making Bear Country the exhibit that could be open as soon as this summer. Polar Shores will take longer.
Aquarium gets Legacy money
Meanwhile, the Great Lakes Aquarium hopes to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2020 with a new and improved version of a favorite exhibit, director Jay Walker said.
The exhibit, called H20, has been part of the aquarium from the beginning. It "focuses on water and the science behind water and unique characteristics of water," he said. A feature is the Great Lakes water table, which allows aquarium visitors to see the flow of water across the lakes and "run boats through it."
But the current exhibit isn't accessible to people with disabilities, he said. The improved version will be.
The aquarium sought $250,000 from the state's Legacy fund for the project but received $150,000 for fiscal 2020 and 2021 in the session that was just completed. That means some fundraising will be needed and the aquarium will have to dig into operational funds, Walker said. Nonetheless, he's hopeful work can begin in the fall and completed next spring.
Much of the work can be done off-site, meaning disruption to visitors while the project is underway will be minimal, Walker said.