Como Park Zoo just received one of its biggest Christmas gifts ever. Four years after launching a $19 million fundraising campaign, the zoo wrapped up its work this month.
The polar bears are particularly happy. They were the first beneficiaries of the campaign designed to fund a more suitable home for them and to improve access to the zoo's nationally known Como Ordway Memorial Japanese Garden.
"The fundraising climate was incredibly challenging when we started,'' said Jackie Sticha, president of Como Friends, the nonprofit that just finished raising $8.5 million in private donations. Another $11 million came from the government.
"But in some ways, the economic pressures on our audience of young families and school groups helped us make the case that Como services a very important need,'' she said.
During the course of the campaign, for example, the number of zoo visitors soared by 500,000 -- from 1.7 million a year to 2.2 million, she said.
Como Park Zoo and Conservatory is the nation's last zoo and botanical garden with completely free admission. The attractions were flooded with families and school groups looking for an inexpensive and interesting outing.
The final donations to the capital campaign will fund a new wing for the historic Como Conservatory. The project will create a year-round display space for Como's nationally recognized collection of bonsai trees, as well as a dedicated entrance to the popular Japanese Garden.
Earlier this year, campaign funds paid for the Polar Bear Odyssey, the new home of bears Buzz and Neil that is seven times bigger than their previous digs. It won recognition from the conservation group Polar Bears International.
Improving the garden entrance and the polar bear habitat were the two top suggestions of Como Zoo visitors over the years, said Sticha.
"The campaign allowed us to provide what the public has been asking for,'' she said.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511