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Continued: Minnesota Zoo plans ambitious, costly makeover

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

“We’re talking about the business community, about parents who can’t afford an actual safari but could afford a night’s stay — it’s touching a different level of people. A really nice restaurant could be a totally unique place to eat, or go out on a date.”

Kahn, while reluctant to see state support going toward features that may be too pricey for some visitors, applauds zoo management for its efforts to drum up excitement. “The early years, they were just impossible,” she said. “They didn’t want anything to do with public enjoyment. It was all just conservation.”

Notes from planning sessions suggest that zoo officials are well aware of the tension between profits and a more high-minded focus on conservation and the environment.

They oscillate from calls to let it all hang out (“We’re fun, damn it!”) to reminders that the zoo must respect the sensibilities of its clients (“Don’t forget this is Minnesota”).

To Africa and beyond

Arguably the central paradox of the Minnesota Zoo — and a reason it gets subpar ratings from zoogoers on a review website such as TripAdvisor — is that it’s expensive compared to peer zoos without offering a lot of the standard zoo species.

“We checked once and among the 20 zoos with the largest attendance, we were the only one that didn’t have giraffes,” Ehmke said.

The new master plan introduces giraffes, antelopes, rhinos, hippos, lions and cheetahs. Another major change would come at Discovery Bay, where the marquee dolphin exhibit closed recently. The new plans call for sting rays and potentially an array of other species.

And with a giraffe feeding platform, tented camp on the African grasslands and scuba outings, the plan proposes plenty of ways to turn the new animals into extra revenue.

But the zoo’s internal documents serve as a reminder that it has a checkered history with attractions that were supposed to bring in more revenue.

They contain scathing assessments of the monorail, which the zoo plans to scrap this year amid declining use, and the independently owned Imax theater, which looms above the entrance but doesn’t contribute a dime toward the zoo’s bottom line.

“Good intentions, but clearly the original investors didn’t get the return they were looking for because they sold it at a loss,” Ehmke said. “It never generated the anticipated traffic.”

Documents show that zoo officials also understand that large, flashy expansions come with their own set of risks, including costly additions to keep the crowds coming once an initial burst of curiosity has been satisfied.

Millions are being spent even now to overhaul the decaying Discovery Bay, which opened in 1997. It’s a reminder that the zoo in some sense is never “done”: It keeps needing funds.

Risks will be controlled, Ehmke said, by working in careful, deliberate phases, and always looking for ways to make the zoo more self-sufficient. Before it formally seeks money for things like African exhibits, it is already working on moneymaking ventures such as a carousel and an “adventure play” zone featuring a treetop-clearing zip line.

“I guess if they want to add all those things but not raise the price of general admission, that would be fine ... ” said Libby Rasmussen of Burnsville, “but it does annoy me already how much the zoo seems to be asking for your money at every turn. They have mini gift shops throughout the zoo, they have food and ice cream stands everywhere. I think they should keep it more of an educational experience.”

 

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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