The opening of Como Zoo's new seal and sea lion exhibit, originally planned for late 2019, has been delayed, possibly until the end of this year.
Bad weather and the unexpected discovery of an old sewer line slowed construction, said Michelle Furrer, director of St. Paul's Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. The opening date will hinge on when construction can begin this spring, she said.
"Right now it's looking good with these warm temperatures that we've seen in February," Furrer said. "We hope to be having the public see it before the end of the year."
The seal and sea lion exhibit and its most well-known resident, Sparky, have been a Como Zoo mainstay for more than 60 years. The renovated exhibit, called Como Harbor, will include two year-round pools for the seals and sea lions, an underwater viewing space and an updated amphitheater.
In addition to the new amenities for visitors, plans for Como Harbor include improvements for the animals who live there. The zoo is following recent federal guidelines for housing marine mammals, Furrer said, including providing more space and saltwater to swim in.
During construction, the zoo's four California sea lions are living elsewhere on site and its two harbor seals are staying at the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky, Furrer said. They're expected to return in late spring or early summer to get acclimated to their new home, she said.
Construction contracts were awarded in June 2018, Furrer said, and that summer crews stumbled upon an abandoned sanitation line connected to the existing system. New pipes had to be manufactured to close off the line, she said.
"We essentially … lost a lot of that summer construction cycle due to those unknown conditions," she said. "It was just one of those things. You open up the ground and you find something."
The late spring and rainy summer that followed in 2019 caused further delays, Furrer said.
The 2017 Legislature allocated $15 million for the project. Como Friends, the zoo's nonprofit partner, raised another $5 million.
Construction delays haven't affected the project's nearly $20 million budget, Furrer said.
Construction crews used the delay to work on a new restroom building and restaurant that were supposed to be built later, she said, and those were open to the public by Labor Day last year.
Though the timeline laid out in a funding agreement with the state gives fall 2019 as the planned opening date, the agreement allows until Dec. 31, 2020, to get the work done.
Como Friends President Jackie Sticha said the group has been keeping supporters updated on Como Harbor's progress through its quarterly newsletter.
"People are excited," she said. "They're anxious to see it open, but they can see that it's a big footprint and it's a big project and that it is going to take a little bit of time to get it done."