Minnesota Zoo plans ambitious, costly makeover

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2013 - 11:07 PM

Lagging behind the nationwide pack, the Minnesota Zoo hopes pricey new attractions will make it a destination.

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Visitors watched colobus monkeys at the zoo in Apple Valley. The zoo hopes to add more species that visitors expect, like giraffes.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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The master plan approved by the zoo’s governing board late last year calls for a sprawling new Africa trail with lions, giraffes and hippos, as well as a high-end events center overlooking a domed orangutan forest. It would be phased in over the course of years as funding becomes available, with the first phase costing an estimated $50 million.

The plans, some of them still not sharply defined, also include features and activities ranging from camel rides to elevated zip lines to a high-end destination restaurant.

The zoo expects to pay for these new features through an unspecified mix of private donations, additional state aid, an increase in admissions fees that are already steep by industry standards, and additional fees charged for many of the new offerings.

Zoo director Lee Ehmke cautions that some elements of the plan are years away and could change, but he says the zoo is aiming to build on its recent success by finally adding some of the bread-and-butter species of a major zoo.

“This plan delivers that — something dreamed of by the founders some 40 years ago, but never realized,” Ehmke said.

“When this is done, you will be definitely competing for top five in the country,” said Allen Nyhuis, co-author of “America’s Best Zoos.” “It will be an alternative for Minnesotans to the big theme parks, the Disney Worlds, but without being a flight away, without the hotel stay, and it won’t be $100 a day just to get in.”

But some of the pay-to-play features contemplated for the Apple Valley zoo can cost hundreds of dollars at other zoos. That could trigger a backlash among consumers who already see the Minnesota Zoo as a costly outing.

“I have friends with three or four kids, or six kids, who never go there now because it’s too expensive,” said Shannon Martin of Eagan. “Already I’m asking, why am I paying extra for parking and the monorail? ... When we pass the gift shop with our 6-year-old, it’s ‘Do you really want that or do you want to eat lunch here? Because you have to pick.’ ”

The Minnesota Zoo is a state agency; about 29 percent of its roughly $25 million operating budget is public funding, and the state has provided tens of millions for major capital projects, such as new exhibits.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who heads a key zoo funding committee, said she has great confidence in Ehmke and supports his vision but probably wouldn’t want state money going into high-end installations that visitors would have to pay extra to enjoy.

Ehmke said the pressure to develop revenue is intense. State support has been flat or declining; the zoo is modestly below the average level of subsidy for zoos like his. Income-earning features such as aquatic dives and safari camping are a major part of the plan, he said.

Measuring up

Ehmke was viewed as one of most gifted exhibit designers in the nation when he came to Minnesota from New York’s Bronx Zoo 13 years ago. Since then, he has focused on improving the core elements of the Minnesota Zoo, drawing $75 million from the state and from donors. He’s not quite done: This year Ehmke is seeking $26 million to revamp the snow monkey exhibit, among other things.

Despite those accomplishments, internal zoo documents acquired by the Star Tribune suggest zoo officials believe it does not stack up well against its rivals.

A spreadsheet comparing the Apple Valley zoo to nine “comparable large zoos” in the northern states, from Oregon to Philadelphia, finds it has some of the highest prices — and among the fewest memberships and per-capita admissions.

To remedy that, Ehmke is turning to the hundreds of undeveloped and underdeveloped acres around that core. The question is not only what to do, but also how to finance it. And there’s no doubt the answer in many zoos is extra fun for extra fees.

At the Dallas Zoo, it’s $5 a rider to mount a camel. At San Diego, safari camping can run $260 per person. At Orlando, a zip line family pack is $150.

Alan Sironen, an Ohio zoo consultant and former curator at the Cleveland Zoo, said a new era of premium add-ons should be seen as “reaching out to a whole different audience” when public funding is questionable.

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