The Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth, ravaged by storms in 2012 when floodwaters were so bad they washed a seal onto city streets, is struggling to steady itself with an infusion of cash from the Duluth City Council and ambitious plans for the future.
Last week, the City Council approved adding $200,000 to the zoo’s budget to keep it running through the end of the year. The council also approved extending a deadline for paying back a $300,000 line of credit.
The city owns the zoo, which is operated by the Lake Superior Zoological Society.
The facility, which draws about 87,000 visitors a year, has been used in various ways throughout its 93-year history. But its landscape was permanently altered in June 2012 when floodwaters from Kingsbury Creek destroyed the popular Polar Shores exhibit and forced the zoo to close for weeks during the busiest time of the year.
During discussion before the recent vote, council members agreed that the viability of the zoo is critical to development along the city’s west end, where an ambitious redevelopment plan called the St. Louis River Corridor Initiative is moving forward.
“It’s no secret that the zoo has not recovered [from the flood of 2012],” said Council Member Noah Hobbs. “I think it does have a bright future if we continue to invest. I think it would be very shortsighted if this council decided not to just do this gap financing.”
With its last major face-lift in the 1990s, the zoo is developing an eight-year, $15 million plan to revitalize itself. The first phase involves reopening the Polar Shores exhibit, closed since the flooding. It will now feature brown bears instead of polar bears and is expected to drive traffic and increase attendance.
The zoo has begun a capital campaign to raise $2 million for that exhibit that would be matched with a $1.9 million contribution from the city.
“Once that exhibit becomes revitalized, that will be a huge boost to everything around here at the zoo,” said Julene Boe, the zoo’s interim chief executive.
When all phases are completed, there still will be space for popular animals such as snow leopards, wolves and Amur tigers. But the end result of a plan linking the zoo to Fairmount Park might be a smaller footprint for exhibits and more integration with the surrounding area that could include possible trails linking the zoo to the river and play experiences such as a sledding hill.
“I’ve always felt that the zoo could be a much stronger anchor here and I think there are a lot of opportunities to take advantage of the environment around the zoo,” Boe said. “A smaller footprint as far as where animals are doesn’t necessarily need to limit our reach or our programs.”
The zoo’s operations are subsidized by a tourism tax of about $510,000 a year and by about $160,000 from the state. The zoo is one of three in Minnesota that receive state money. The others are the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley and the Como Zoo in St. Paul.
While the unanimous council vote reflected the support the zoo has in Duluth, concerns remain about its finances.
“I think we all understand that the future of the zoo does depend upon putting in place new attractions and new exhibits that will drive interest and attendance,” said Council Member Joel Sipress.
“I think it’s important that the zoo does return itself to break-even financial status.”