More than $6 million for infrastructure improvements at the Minnesota Zoo hangs in the balance as Gov. Mark Dayton weighs whether to sign off on $825 million in bonding for projects across the state.
If approved, the money will help replace rusted pipes, crumbling concrete and aging mechanical systems at the sprawling Apple Valley zoo.
"As a 40-year-old facility, we will require continued investment," said zoo director John Frawley, who stressed that basic maintenance is essential to keeping the institution viable and preventing safety problems down the line.
Of the nearly $35 million in bonding that zoo officials requested, the zoo is poised to receive $6 million earmarked to address the backlog of necessary repairs.
"To get $6 million in [such a small] bonding bill is really, pretty much, a victory," said Claudia Hochstein, the zoo's legislative affairs liaison.
Dayton is expected to make a decision on the bill next week.
Zoo officials say they're grateful for the public-private partnership that helps keep operations afloat. Taxpayers provide nearly a third of the zoo's $28 million annual budget.
Under Frawley's leadership, the Minnesota Zoo has taken a more measured approach to long-term planning. Rather than launching pricey blockbuster exhibits, Frawley has shifted toward more bite-sized investments to slowly revitalize what the zoo already has to offer.
Frawley had hoped the change in focus would result in more buy-in from a polarized Legislature that has shown little enthusiasm for a huge expansion project at the zoo. Last year, it received $4 million of its total $24 million request.
As part of an intense lobbying campaign last fall, zoo administrators offered behind-the-scenes tours for members of the House Bonding Committee, Republican House members and Dayton's staff. Politicians were led into the "belly of the zoo" to see animal holding areas and life support systems in obvious need of repair.
"I think they appreciated getting that viewpoint," Hochstein said. "Everything is visibly 40 years old."
The zoo's bonding request this year included $13.75 million for maintenance and $21 million to help kick-start planned additions like an aerial walkway, a trolley system and an exhibit of nocturnal animals.
Projects on hold
In lieu of state aid, the zoo will turn to private donors. Its most ambitious plans involve converting the defunct monorail track into the Minnesota Treetop Trail, similar to New York City's popular High Line park. Construction was slated to begin this summer on the trail, but it will have to be put on hold without the initial $5 million funding.
Richard Vogel, the zoo board's chairman, said he was frustrated by how things shook out at the State Capitol this year.
"I thought we made a strong case," he said. "It's disappointing — and not just on behalf of the zoo — that the governor and the Legislature can't seem to do a better job negotiating and compromising."
The fundraising push comes amid sweeping changes to the zoo's strategic plan, which emphasizes connecting visitors with nature. Frawley envisions adding campgrounds, hiking trails and an adventure course to the nearly 500-acre property, making it something of a gateway to Minnesota's state parks.
The popular Australian-themed Kangaroo Crossing exhibit returns this weekend with dozens of red kangaroos, wallabies and their joeys. The exhibit, included in zoo admission, allows guests to walk freely among the animals as they graze, wrestle and nap. For an extra $6, you can also feed them.
"It's a fun place to visit," Vogel said. "We have a lot of exciting things happening over the next 10 years."