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Until recently, the chances of the average Mom-with-stroller rubbing elbows with the guy who runs the Minnesota Zoo were slim.
"I used to park in a back lot and come in the quick way," Lee Ehmke says.
But now that the zoo's new entryway has some zoogoers comparing it to the approach to an art museum, Ehmke has changed his routine.
"There's a level of sophistication now to the design and the landscaping," he says. "It feels classy. I love it so much, I come in that way myself."
It's also a less crowded route than it was a couple of years ago, because fewer people are coming to the Minnesota Zoo.
Since the record-setting years that followed the opening of the Ehmke-designed blockbuster exhibit Russia's Grizzly Coast, attendance has dropped off substantially. In the most recent full fiscal year, it fell by more than 150,000 from its most recent peak.
Welcome to the "whatcha-done-for-me-lately" world of zoo attendance, where officials race to develop some new form of magic every spring.
There's no reason to worry, Ehmke insists, that heightened expenses caused by all the new glitz are on a collision course with declining revenues. In fact, private fundraising has gone almost as well as it has at any time in the zoo's history.
As the zoo pauses from major new projects to recast its master plan in the coming months, Ehmke discussed past, present and future in a recent interview. Here are some edited excerpts:
QIt's been just over a decade for you here, with some setbacks en route -- are you still coming to work with a spring in your step?
AAbsolutely. A good chunk of the zoo has been transformed, and the way the public has reacted to it has been gratifying and fun. This year's addition, with the penguins, is not a "Russia's Grizzly Coast" type of mega-exhibit, but more of an infrastructure upgrade, together with classrooms and other new features. But it's highly impactful and doing exactly what we wanted: showing off active, social animals as soon as people get to the zoo. People are excited about it.
QDoes the attendance decline surprise you?
ANo, the industry standard is that a blockbuster exhibit [like Grizzly Coast] might get you a two-year spike, and we had the two best years in the history of the zoo. The nice thing is, as it's come down, the new plateau is higher than the previous plateau. Last [fiscal] year we aimed for 1.2 million and didn't hit it, but we're tracking right with our projections this year even though July was low, with the worst weather I remember and a state shutdown that closed us for two days.
QIt feels like you're in a lull right now.
ANot necessarily. As I look out the window I see three major construction projects. We're building a new black bear exhibit that will open in less than a year and finish the whole Minnesota Trail renovation. People have always asked where that most iconic of animals is, and there's a beautiful new exhibit for them shaping up.
Secondly the Tropics Building itself: a 35-year-old building with a lot of needs to chip away at, and we're replacing the skylights and re-doing the roof. Third, the coral reef exhibit is undergoing complete renovation and will reopen this spring.
QAnything else on tap for next year that could help with attendance?
ANext summer we will bring back the audio-animatronic dinosaur exhibit that we haven't done since the '90s. It had to be inside a tent before, which was a little underwhelming. We'll now have life-sized, amazing replicas outdoors, a whole woodland walk to encounter them in their natural environment. It's toured other zoos to great reviews and great returns in attendance and revenue. That opens Memorial Day weekend.
QYou are fighting some stiff demographic headwinds, as society ages.
AThat's a reality we are addressing, making sure not all our offerings are for moms and 5-year-olds. That's still the core audience, but we have a lot of other things going on. We are consistently named one of the best outdoor concert venues. Our wine tastings are hugely popular. We have a beautiful new auditorium this year and our lecture series is well attended. We had a preeminent expert on lions in for a standing-room-only session a couple of weeks ago. So we're doing programming that reaches beyond the core demographic.
QFormer Gov. Tim Pawlenty was a south metro guy who did a lot to help you finance all the improvements. How's it going with the new governor, Mark Dayton?
AFine. We've had a couple of meetings with the governor and his staff. We fit into his worldview of conservation education and investment in public amenities. We have a good connection.
QHow have cuts in state funding affected you?
AWe took a hit, a 15 percent reduction in our baseline appropriation or $800,000 in each of two years. That's not insignificant. But others were cut more. And on the flip side, we have gotten money from the Legacy Amendment, which is wonderful. That can't replace lost operating funds, but it allows us to do a number of things, particularly in programming. On the whole we feel it was a successful year, with increased earned and contributed revenue, including private fundraising that had its second-best year ever, $5.5 million, some to operations and some for capital improvements. In this economy to have that level of success speaks well.
QWhat did you lose from the cuts?
AWe didn't open the butterfly exhibit, which is seasonal -- that's the most noticeable piece to the public. It was relatively easy to close. Other effects are more hidden: deferred maintenance, supplies. We've worked hard not to impact the public's experience.
QAnd you're working on a new long-range plan?
AIt's been over 10 years since the last master plan. We didn't complete everything in it, but it seemed the right time for another cycle of planning for the next ten years. We kicked that off last month and will finalize it by June.
A lot of it will reaffirm earlier plans; we want to do Africa. [The zoo has always lacked a major exhibit adding African animals, except in temporary exhibits.] And continued improvements in the heart of the zoo: a single point of entry, a new prairie exhibit on a hill nearby, and we will look at other possibilities as well. More to come on that!
David Peterson • 952-746-3285