This year was supposed to be “make or break” for the Lake Superior Zoo, in the words of its former CEO. An aggressive plan was put in place in 2019 to boost visitor numbers beginning this year, grow memberships, pay off debt, and begin operating in the black.
As overly optimistic as it all may have seemed for an aging attraction seemingly on the brink of financial extinction for years, a News Tribune editorial called on Duluthians to “support the efforts” and to “pull for the zoo to turn things around.” After all, “A closed or failing zoo would be a burden on the community, a blight, and a drain.” And our zoo is a landmark, a point of pride, and a “fixture in the community for more than 95 years.”
The editorial also acknowledged, “Taxpayers’ patience can’t be expected to last forever.”
With the economic destruction in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, our patience can be extended just a little bit longer, however. We can continue stand by our zoo — the 19th-oldest in the U.S. and fully accredited through the AZA, or Association of Zoos and Aquariums — and give new CEO Haley Cope a chance to make progress on all the optimism and aggressive planning that came before a public health emergency turned our worlds upside down.
The Duluth City Council Monday voted unanimously to stick with the zoo a little longer. In consideration of the very difficult financial realities during these unprecedented, unforeseen times, councilors agreed to grant the zoo an additional year to pay back $247,000 from a line of credit. The debt was supposed to have been paid off by this coming Oct. 1.
“We are not spending any additional money on the zoo,” Council President Gary Anderson made a point of stating, according to News Tribune coverage. “We're simply allowing this line of credit to be extended for one year to allow the zoo every opportunity to fulfill its commitment."
On that front, CEO Cope had some good news and bad news for councilors.
First the good: Paid zoo memberships are up 141%, online revenues are up 356%, cash flow is sufficient enough to carry on at least through early November, and an ambitious fundraising campaign with a $150,000 goal is about to be launched, she said.
"This uptick in numbers along with our cost-saving measures are encouraging,” said Cope. “But we do know that there is still a ways to go as we navigate through the end of the year and through the pandemic."
The bad news: After reopening to the public in June with a reduced four-day schedule, gate revenues are down 35% compared to last year. The figure reflects how soft local tourism spending is due to COVID-19.
There are reasons to believe the zoo can still bounce back. With new bear exhibits, $4 million of remodeling, and stepped-up marketing, the zoo, pre-COVID, was forecasting 130,000 annual visitors within three years. Its 19,981 visitors in just 40 days since June, as Cope reported to councilors, actually seems to be on pace. The zoo just needs to be open more and longer days, something that’s difficult and bordering on impossible right now. About 80,000 or 85,000 annual paying customers are needed to break even, the zoo has said — which, based on past attendance figures, seems doable under normal circumstances.
Getting back to those normal circumstances, however — or surviving until then — is the challenge. It’s a challenge that requires a bit of patience and consideration of a pandemic no one could have predicted. The City Council showed some Monday. Duluthians can show some, too — with everyone agreeing our patience can’t be unlimited and that a difficult conversation may be needed.