Leaders in Duluth are considering that, as they prepare to decide the future of what will likely be at least a scaled-back Lake Superior Zoo on the west side of town.
The city-owned zoo will need upgrades to keep up with changing accreditation standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which promotes naturalistic habitat and behavior-stimulating activities to give animals better lives and make visits more educational.
The price tag to do that, under two different proposals, is $12 million to $16 million in capital costs, along with estimated yearly costs of $380,000 to $510,000, said Jim Filby Williams, the city’s director of public administration. The city now spends about $670,000 a year to subsidize operations. Still, the zoo is expected to operate in the red for 2015.
A third option, which would keep some animals but would transform part of the approximately 17-acre zoo into a park for public use, is still in the planning stages. It doesn’t yet have an associated price tag, though Williams said it will likely be less than $12 million and require lower annual costs. Leaders will present it to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission at a special meeting on June 4.
All three options will likely involve scaling back the animal exhibits in at least some form, with the first two still featuring a traditional zoo, and the third involving something less than a zoo, Williams said.
“We’re not at all just shrinking the zoo footprint solely to reduce costs, but also to increase access to and through this exceptionally beautiful and important green space,” he said. New plans would bring greater public benefit, including trails through the hillside space.
While the two zoo proposals are modest by modern standards — some small cites have invested $20 million for single exhibits — it’s still considered a hefty cost among Duluth city administrators. Both would involve improving the grizzly bear exhibit, which needs to keep up with evolving practices, Williams said.
The zoo, which drew 87,000 visitors last year, is surrounded by about 33 acres of mostly wild parkland. It all makes up Fairmount Park, which has been used in various ways throughout its 100-year history; for instance, it once featured a swimming hole on Kingsbury Creek. It also held carnival rides and large community gatherings.
The zoo was permanently altered in 2012 when floodwaters from the creek destroyed the popular Polar Shores exhibit. Any new plans must keep animal exhibits out of flood plains, officials said.
The Lake Superior Zoological Society, which manages the property and the animals for the city, favors keeping a zoo, said board President John Scott. But he said he believes that other non-animal attractions could be part of the mix, such as zip lines, adventure playground equipment or other features.
With many Duluth days that aren’t 70 degrees and sunny, Scott said, the city might be better off enhancing indoor exhibits and concentrating on animals that do well in colder climates. That could mean relocating a Siberian tiger to another zoo but keeping the grizzly bear, he said.
“We’ve been managing the zoo for 92 years. One of our strong core values is maintaining an up-close experience with the animals and the environment that we live within,” Scott said. “If you don’t have animals, then it’s a different mission than what the zoo society is all about.”
Deliberations on the park and zoo’s future are expected to continue through the summer, with the City Council making the final decision.