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Nearly $35 million sought for Minnesota Zoo preservation, revitalization

Lobbyist Sonnie Elliott reluctantly pets Evita, an Argentine black and white Tegu lizard held by Minnesota Zoo staffer Donnie Crook, before zoo leaders presented their 2018 bonding request to the House Capital Investment Committee. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Like many soon-to-be 40 year olds, the Minnesota Zoo is showing its age.

Now its leaders are seeking $34.75 million in bond proceeds to update and improve the Apple Valley facility that opened May 22, 1978.

The House Capital Investment Committee took no action Wednesday on HF3100, sponsored by Rep. Anna Wills (R-Rosemount). Sen. Greg Clausen (DFL-Apple Valley) sponsors the companion, SF2954, which awaits action by the Senate Capital Investment Committee.

The request is in Gov. Mark Dayton’s capital budget request.

“The zoo’s annual economic impact to the state is about $140 million, far more than the state puts in,” Wills said.

In Fiscal Year 2017, approximately 1.35 million people — including more than 100,000 students — visited the 485-acre zoo that is home to more than 4,800 animals. Roughly 445,000 of those visitors came from Greater Minnesota. Zoo memberships are owned by individuals or households in 75 of the state’s 87 counties.

Zoo Director John Frawley said a new strategic plan is focused on improving what is already the nation’s fifth-largest zoo. “The key to a strategic plan is having good infrastructure in place … We’re excited about where we can go.”

To that end, in its 2018 capital investment request, zoo officials are targeting $21 million to revitalize current infrastructure, including $5 million to begin the Minnesota Treetop Trail that will be an elevated walkway created on the tracks of the monorail that stopped operating in 2013.

Other new investments would include $9.5 million for entrance enhancements, including refreshing the snow monkey exhibit; $4 million to construct Creatures Beneath the Canopy in a boarded-up hallway in the Tropics Trail; and $2.5 million to improve transportation and accessibility.

Frawley said visitors’ top complaint is difficulty getting around the zoo, especially with the monorail no longer operating.

The $13.75 million asset preservation request is comprised of:

  • $4 million to replace Tropics Trail skylights, one-third of which are original;
  • $2.75 million to upgrade or replace systems needed to provide essential care for aquatic animal and marine life;
  • $2.5 million to renovate the moose exhibit and holding area to allow for more moose on display each day;
  • $2 million to update the aviary section of the Tropics Trail, including the replacement of more than 100,000-square feet of mesh netting;
  • $1.25 million to replace railings and bridges on the Northern Trail; and
  • $1.25 million to replace concrete and asphalt pathways and parking lots.

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