The Minnesota Zoo is pushing ahead with an ambitious expansion campaign despite a $1.5 million budget shortfall that disrupted operations and threatened to close exhibits.

If anything, there’s new urgency to the plans, with zoo officials prioritizing capital projects that are most likely to keep tickets selling — especially, giraffes, lions and zebras. The zoo has been struggling financially since rising costs in staff wages and animal feed blew a hole in its 2015 budget.

Several legislators from both parties have pledged support amid the financial woes. Gov. Mark Dayton suggested a $2.8 million increase in annual funding for the zoo in his recent budget proposal.

The 500-acre Apple Valley zoo, a state agency, draws an average of 1.2 million visitors a year. About 32 percent of its $25 million budget comes from public funding.

Zoo officials see a sprawling $30 million to $40 million African Savanna exhibit — planned for 2021 — as key to a successful future. They expect it would be a continual draw for crowds who want to see standard species like giraffes and lions that the zoo has been missing.

“It’s something we’ve heard loud and clear since the zoo opened,” said Lee Ehmke, Minnesota Zoo director and CEO. “There’s a certain perception for guests about what they want to see when they come to the zoo and we deliver on quite a bit of it, but that’s a piece that is missing. We know that.”

Other improvements are already planned for this year, including the addition of Hawaiian monk seals in the once-decaying Discovery Bay space, and a zip line. A $20 million project to revamp the snow monkey exhibit and nearby plaza will follow in 2017.

Modern exhibits

The snow monkeys are the first priority in a strategic plan the zoo board of directors approved in October. That plan lays out projects for the next five years, emphasizing conservation work and bringing exhibits up to date.

The snow monkey display has remained largely untouched since the zoo opened, and its drab concrete walls turn off guests, said Kevin Willis, vice president of biological programs at the zoo.

The capital projects will be funded through a mix of private donations, increased state aid, additional fees for extra features and, eventually a hike in admissions — already some of the highest in the industry.

The Minnesota Zoo Foundation, which acts as the institution’s fundraising arm, is expected to pitch in more for operations — raising their contributions by 27 percent over the next five years. The foundation is also expected to raise about half of the funding for the Africa exhibit.

Melissa Parker Lindsay, executive director of the foundation, anticipates generous donations for the Africa exhibit because it’s something guests have wanted for a long time and an immersive experience they aren’t likely to get elsewhere.

“The majority of the people in the state won’t be able to make a trip to Africa,” Lindsay said.

Allen Nyhuis, co-author of the book “America’s Best Zoos,” said the elimination of the zoo’s monorail and beloved dolphin show in recent years downgraded the quality of the institution. Despite those losses, Nyhuis still considers the Minnesota Zoo to rank just outside the top 10 in the country. African animals are the one missing piece, he said.

“[Minnesota] may be the largest zoo in the country without giraffes,” Nyhuis said.

Extra pay-to-play features are planned to help contribute to the zoo’s bottom line, including a zip line and ropes adventure course. The zip line will be located outside the zoo proper so guests can use it without paying zoo admission.

A carousel that costs an additional $2 per person opened last June and has already raked in upwards of $100,000 in revenue.

Budget busters

Zoo supporters and board members said the recent deficit was caused by unforeseen circumstances.

When the state lifted a salary freeze mandating that the zoo provide employee raises, the institution was forced to swallow about $1 million in additional expenses, said zoo spokeswoman Beth Burns.

Compounding the problem, the cost of animal feed and utilities went up while attendance slumped 4.5 percent in vital summer months. Zoo officials attributed the lack of visitors to bad weather. There has also been a lull in attendance between new exhibits.

“We were reacting to the cost pressures by being more aggressive with our assumptions about attendance — and in some cases had fallen short,” Ehmke said.

As a result, seven staff members were laid off in October. The layoffs and other expense reductions helped save the zoo $500,000.

Dayton has said he supports the emergency infusion of cash for the zoo, but is concerned that zoo officials didn’t do a better job budgeting. The zoo’s emergency funding request is before the Legislature.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said the Legislature has bigger concerns: “When you look at what are the priorities in Minnesota with our limited financial resources, the zoo is not on top of that list.”

But Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, said it’s important to support the zoo because it’s a state agency.

“We need to make sure we’re funding it at the level that it can maintain its mission. … We have not lived up to our obligation to the zoo,” he said. “It’s one of those institutions in Minnesota that really adds to our quality of life.”