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Duluth zoo to seek funding for new main facility

The existing main facility is so outdated that the Lake Superior Zoological Society agreed replacing it seems like the best course of action.

At the Lake Superior Zoo.
Lake Superior Zoo CEO Haley Hedstrom, left, talks to Duluth City Councilor Janet Kennedy, Council President Arik Forsman (carrying son Arlo), Steve Davis, and Councilor Terese Tomanek during a tour of the zoo Monday. Later Hedstrom presented the zoo’s 15-year strategic plan to the council.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The Lake Superior Zoo needs some work, and a plan shared with the City Council on Monday night lays out a possible road map for the future of the operation. But executing on that plan won't be cheap, especially as it involves the replacement of the zoo's main building at an estimated cost of about $15 million.

The current brick structure is nearly a century old, and bears multiple scars from deferred maintenance. The building's age also is evident in terms of less-than-ideal access for people with disabilities. Then, there are also certain outdated animal exhibits that will need to be improved for the zoo to maintain accredited status with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

Zoo CEO Haley Hedstrom noted that only about 10% of zoos in the nation have earned AZA accreditation, and developing a long-term plan is one of the expectations of membership in the organization. The Lake Superior Zoo is up for its next AZA inspection in June.

At the Lake Superior Zoo.
Visitors arrive at the Lake Superior Zoo’s nearly 100-year-old main building. The Lake Superior Zoological Society would like to replace the building by 2028.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The Duluth zoo already has received $204,000 in state bond funds to do predesign work for a new main building, with construction likely to proceed from 2026 to 2028, if the zoological society can garner adequate support, likely again involving another larger state bonding request.

"There will be an emphasis on conservation, modern zoological practices, as well as animal welfare," Hedstrom said.

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She said the project should expand the zoo's available education space, enabling staff to offer young people more opportunities to participate. Hedstrom said current programs usually fill fast, with many disappointed would-be participants left to linger on long waiting lists.

At the Lake Superior Zoo.
Lake Superior Zoo CEO Haley Hedstrom poses outside the zoo’s main building.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"One of the most exciting parts of this is indoor and accessible parallel play space for all," Hedstrom said of the proposed new building. "So, when it's really cold and you want be able to go to the zoo, but you don't want to walk around (outside). Well, we want to invite families of all ages to be able to come and enjoy the zoo inside on those 20-below days when no one wants to be outside."

In the shorter term, the zoo aims to work this summer to restore a nature trail ravaged by the 2012 flood.

Despite the challenge of recovering from the flood and a forced temporary shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lake Superior Zoo enjoyed a strong 2021 fiscal year.

"We had our highest attendance on record, as a society, with over 106,000 people. That's the best since 2005," Hedstrom said.

At the Lake Superior Zoo.
The Lake Superior Zoo’s brown bears watch visitors after being fed.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"We also retired our line of credit, which I'm sure everyone in this room is very pleased to hear," Hedstrom said, referring to the $247,000 the zoo had previously borrowed from the city.

"We are in our strongest finest financial position on record, as well as having over 2,400 member households supporting the zoo here in Duluth and across the state of Minnesota and beyond," she said.

Council President Arik Forsman praised the news of the zoo's improved standing and said, "It's really great to see some of the financial success that they've had. Hopefully it's sustainable long-term. But it's very exciting to see how the zoo is doing under its current leadership. So, I wish them all the best luck, and I hope that many Duluthians would consider supporting them this summer."

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The City Council voted 8-0 in support of a resolution to approve the zoo's master plan Monday night, with 4th District Councilor Renee Van Nett absent but excused.

PREVIOUSLY
The Duluth zoo is on track to enjoy one of its strongest years in a decade.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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