After a year at the helm, Minnesota Zoo director John Frawley has crafted a new vision for the institution’s future, scaling back plans for an ambitious expansion campaign that seemed out of reach while refocusing on programming that connects visitors to nature.

Frawley, a former Minnesota zookeeper, says he is prioritizing smaller upgrades that improve conservation messages and guest experience at existing exhibits rather than dreaming up new ones. Preserving aging infrastructure ranks higher on his current to-do list than launching flashy additions.

“You’re going to see a shift to projects we can achieve,” said Frawley, 52, who spent 20 years developing a coalition to protect the San Francisco Bay Area’s watershed district. “We don’t want to set goals too high. The zoo is 38 years old and it’s starting to show it. It’s time we revisit some of these [older] exhibits.”

The change of direction comes just two years after a tumultuous financial stretch for the state agency, which laid off seven workers after attendance dipped 4.5 percent in 2014. A $1.5 million budget shortfall that year endangered popular wildlife displays until the Legislature approved an emergency cash infusion.

With the zoo now on the upswing, Frawley aims to build excitement through alternative revenue streams — or programming that capitalizes on what the zoo already has to offer.

That means drawing crowds for special events like Adult Night Out, where grown-ups can explore a kid-free visit with a beer in hand. Tropical Beach Party, a chance to escape winter through sand, palm trees and exotic animals, was extended this year from one weekend to four — driving a record attendance month in February, when numbers typically slump.

The Minnesota Zoo now offers a backstage pass for a more direct animal encounter — pet a penguin for $125, or propose marriage among the birds, bears or other creatures for $500. An Australian exhibit, opening in May, will allow guests to walk among red kangaroos, wallabies and emus.

Unusual exhibits like these can generate revenue when packaged with themed food items and merchandising, said Dave Frazier, the zoo’s vice president of operations.

“People are looking for experiences,” said Frazier, a former general manager at Valleyfair and Mall of America’s Nickelodeon Universe. “You want to make people excited to then come and learn.”

Building Africa

By contrast, Frawley’s predecessor, Lee Ehmke, a famed exhibit designer, had touted a sprawling African trail — including the zoo’s first permanent giraffes, lions and zebras — as key to a successful future.

That project, originally scheduled for 2021, came with a price tag of $100 million or more. The zoo may still someday welcome giraffes, but officials said if that happens, they’ll build a smaller exhibit at a fraction of the cost. It’s a move they hope will refashion some of Ehmke’s long-term plans on a tighter budget.

Ehmke, who now heads the Houston Zoo, said he does not begrudge the change in direction.

While elements of Ehmke’s 2012 master plan remain, Frawley has opted for bite-sized investments that slowly change the face of the institution.

“That’s definitely a viable approach, given the realities of funding,” said Ehmke, citing uncertain political climates at the Legislature, which provides nearly a third of the zoo’s $25 million annual budget.

Ehmke had envisioned a grandiose African savanna featuring lions, hippos and giraffes, as well as a high-end events center overlooking an orangutan forest. The endeavor presented several hurdles beyond the exorbitant cost — namely, how to house those large animals indoors during Minnesota winters.

At his job interview, Frawley asked the zoo board if he had to make good on that plan. He considered something less ambitious to be more feasible.

“Maybe it’s just a slice of Africa,” Frawley said, estimating a $5 million to $10 million bill. “I just don’t want to do a mega-Africa that’s going to be closed all season long.”

Frawley still expects to have some crowd-pleasing species like giraffes and zebras. But he only wants to invest in animals that will thrive in a Minnesota climate.

Allen Nyhuis, co-author of the book “America’s Best Zoos,” said it would be difficult to become a top-10 zoo without some African animals or great apes. “That’s a big hole to fill,” he said.

The Minnesota Zoo board, whose members spent years dreaming about the massive African project, largely agreed that the original plan was perhaps no longer realistic, said trustee Peter Maritz. Pushing forward could be risky, exhausting their capacity for fundraising over several years with no guarantee that the project would pay for itself in increased attendance.

“We might only be able to do something like that every 10 years,” said Maritz, former board chairman. The zoo’s last blockbuster exhibit was the award-winning Russia’s Grizzly Coast in 2008, Ehmke’s $25 million brainchild.

Kevin Willis, who served as interim director before Frawley was hired, said the Legislature has shown little enthusiasm for a huge expansion but has left room for some improvements.

That includes completion of Heart of the Zoo II, a renovation of the main building that will rehab the drab snow monkey exhibit and replace aging concrete. The display has remained largely untouched since the zoo opened in 1978 and fails to show animals in their environmental context, said Willis, vice president of biological programs.

The zoo wants more than $20 million for the face-lift, which will revitalize its main lobby, and $4 million more for other crucial repairs. Gov. Mark Dayton recommended the full amount, but funding is up to the Legislature.

Rep. Anna Wills, R-Apple Valley, whose district includes the zoo, supports the request — which she called expensive but long overdue.

“I think the monkeys and the guests deserve those improvements,” Wills said. “If you look closely, you can see where the concrete is crumbling.”

Looking ahead

This summer, Frawley aims to launch a 12-year strategic plan to better connect its 1.3 million annual guests with the natural world. To do so, he wants to use hundreds of undeveloped acres around the zoo, which occupies only a third of its 485-acre property. He’s seeking corporate and community partners to support conservation work.

Other initiatives include expanding access for low-income guests and mobility for seniors and those with disabilities. A task force was also formed to brainstorm 28 potential mini-projects that could be achieved before the agency’s 50th anniversary in 2028.

“This zoo has changed lives,” Frawley said. “The community needs this zoo.”