A plan to lop about 9 acres off Duluth's Lake Superior Zoo and convert the land into a public park was unveiled last week by city and zoo officials, who say it will go before the Duluth City Council in January.
It comes more than three years after devastating floods killed more than a dozen animals, shut down the zoo's popular Polar Shores exhibit and forced Berlin the polar bear and two harbor seals to be relocated to other zoos.
Some $2.7 million in tax revenue has been identified so far for the $15 million plan. It's likely to face modifications before the City Council signs off on it, said Jim Filby Williams, the city's director of public administration.
"It's a complicated and difficult public decision about a cherished public institution, and so there will be continued debate and strong feelings and, in some small quarters, upset," he said. Even if minor portions of the plan change, the main concepts should endure, he said.
The city-owned zoo, first opened in 1923, was struggling in 2009 after years of declining attendance. Its operations were turned over to the nonprofit Lake Superior Zoological Society, which has been in negotiations with the city over the zoo's future. The zoo earned $2.06 million in 2014, with about half of that coming from fundraising, donations, grants and an annual $670,000 city subsidy.
The zoo houses about 400 animals representing about 120 species. Its collection includes ring-tailed lemurs, an Amur tiger, three lions and a grizzly bear. The zoo drew bigger crowds in the 1990s, including 140,188 in 1998. Some 87,000 people visited in 2014.
The remade zoo would be about 10 acres, roughly the size of St. Paul's Como Zoo. Filby Williams said exhibits would be closer together, making it easier for visitors to see the zoo's collection of animals. A 2014 analysis found that a low density of exhibits at the zoo required young children and seniors to walk long distances across a hilly landscape, he said.
Some exhibits would be renewed under the plan. The lions and Amur tiger would stay, along with Trouble the grizzly bear. Plans to build a Forest Discovery Zone featuring regional species in a natural forest habitat would continue.
The remade zoo would have a new indoor play space, meeting the city's need for indoor recreation and the zoo's need for offseason income, zoo officials said.
It would also feature some outdoor "destination" play spaces in the zoo's footprint and in the adjacent park space. The zoo sits on the city's west end adjacent to the 33-acre Fairmount Park.
New trails that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act would connect the zoo and adjacent neighborhoods to the St. Louis River. And the new parkland could include an amphitheater, picnic facilities, native landscaping, restored stream banks and a playground, according to the zoo's vision.
The plan balances the needs of the zoo with city finances and connecting river neighborhoods on the city's west end to parks, said Filby Williams.
It's less than half the cost of the zoo's former master plan, approved in 2008 for a $40 million series of improvements. Those plans were violently interrupted in June 2012 when floodwaters ruined portions of the zoo and killed six sheep, four goats, a donkey, a turkey vulture and a snowy owl. The zoo closed for three weeks after the flood.
The public will have at least three opportunities to comment on the plan at a Parks Commission open house, a Parks Commission meeting and a City Council meeting. A City Council vote could come as soon as mid- to late February.