The $20 million remake of the home of Sparky the sea lion at St. Paul's Como Zoo kicked off with a ground-breaking ceremony Thursday.

"This zoo is such a part of so many young people and so many families' stories," Mayor Melvin Carter said, standing before a vast stretch of dirt and flanked by a sculpture of Sparky, a ball balanced on his nose.

"It's exciting to be able to be a part of continuing to see those stories evolve."

The exhibit, first called Monkey Island and then Seal Island, will become Como Harbor with the help of $15 million in 2017 state bonding and another $5 million in private donations, including a recent $1 million commitment from the Otto Bremer Trust.

Construction will start in the next few weeks, and the revamped exhibit is expected to open in late 2019, according to Como Campus Manager Michelle Furrer.

The renovation will update the seal and sea lion habitat and surrounding visitor area to meet changing federal requirements for housing marine mammals and help maintain the zoo's accreditation.

It will include two year-round pools for the seals and sea lions, an underwater viewing space for visitors, an updated seating area, a new restroom building and new food service.

The zoo is free to visitors, and nearly half a million students visit each year.

Emma Nelson