Saltwater has taken its toll, Minnesota Zoo officials say. If cash allows, they would also like to install seats.
Fifteen years after the Minnesota Zoo opened Discovery Bay, the $25 million marine center that was then the biggest addition in its history, saltwater is eating away at its innards and it needs a lot of work.
A $7 million allocation for "asset preservation" recommended by Gov. Mark Dayton is the latest sign that for all its outward pizzazz, the zoo is a state facility unlike any other.
But there's also hope that the cost of merely attacking structural issues won't keep the zoo from adding some long-needed enhancements in the dolphin area, zoo officials say, not the least of which would be real seats for visitors -- definitely an upgrade from the concrete risers.
The biggest problem
"We're hoping to do needed preventive maintenance now on a 15-year-old building that isn't failing and certainly isn't 'moldy,'" contrary to reports, zoo director Lee Ehmke said.
But 1.1 million gallons of saltwater is hard on the building materials around it. "It notoriously finds its way into things," Ehmke said. "We're trying to exercise due diligence and address it before it becomes chronic or catastrophic. We're nowhere near that now."
The severity of the problem isn't totally known and will need careful study, he said. Using its own money, the zoo is proceeding with those studies in hopes of fast-tracking the work if lawmakers approve the recommendation.
Officials hope there will be money left over to perk up the place a bit.
"There are things that were never completed in the original building, including seating for our guests in the theater," Ehmke said. "Right now, concrete risers serve as seats. The plan had been for bench seating: more comfortable, and accommodating more people. But that was never installed. And since dolphins are extremely sensitive to noise and vibration, we were never able to go in later and install them. If the budget allows, we can now do that," as the animals will have to be moved off site anyway.
Other things also need work, he said.
"The audio-visual system that's part of the show is dated. We'd like to upgrade that. If money's left over, we'd like to improve the aquarium exhibits on the lower level."
There's no guarantee that lawmakers will approve the full $7 million, which was all the governor chose from a $35 million request.
But the zoo did get almost all of the asset-preservation money the governor recommended last year.
How long will it take?
"I really can't give a full timeline," Ehmke said. "There's an enormous series of logistics to work out. We want to minimize downtime and do the work outside of our peak season. The dolphins will be here through the summer at a minimum, and we hope to start work later this year."
The extent of the downtime "honestly, really depends on the scope -- what we discover as we assess the building. We'd like to keep it under six months, but a couple of years ago we helped out the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago [by temporarily housing marine species] and they had a similar scope of work and I think it took them close to nine months.
"Best case, we don't miss peak season -- but that's best case."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285