APPLE VALLEY (AP) -- Minnesota Zoo visitors could pay more for less under plans being discussed by officials trying to cope with declining attendance and a 9 percent cut in state funding.
"We've been doing the across-the-board shrinkage," said Lee Ehmke, the zoo's chief executive officer. "But there comes a time where that doesn't work anymore."
Ehmke and his staff are considering closing the zoo's butterfly garden, raising admission by $1 and making fewer repairs to bring the zoo's expenses in line with its revenue.
Zoo attendance was down slightly last year at the same time the state reduced its support. Capital dollars for building new attractions has been hard to come by.
Jeff Higgins, the zoo finance manager, said the zoo's 2002 operating budget was cut 9 percent to $6.91 million. The zoo spent 11 percent less on supplies in fiscal 2002 than the year before.
Despite the budget crunch, the zoo has officially laid off only two employees -- the most it could afford to lose. "We've been running well below the optimal staff number for several years now," Ehmke said.
Beyond trimming day-to-day expenses, the zoo's future growth is at stake. It can only shrink so much when, in fact, it needs to grow to survive, zoo officials say.
That effort was stymied in May with Gov. Jesse Ventura's partial veto of a bonding bill that would have provided funds for the zoo's Asia Trail Gateway project.
If completed, the Asia Trail project will feature a section with new Siberian animals, including Amur leopards and wild boars, and will lead visitors from the center of the zoo to a new exhibit for Chinese and Tibetan animals, such as red pandas and snow leopards.
The Minnesota Zoo has none of the staple animals that guests typically expect, such as lions, giraffes and elephants. The Africa Trail, the final part of a six- to seven-year, $100-million master plan which includes the Asia Trail, would be an indoor-outdoor exhibit featuring these coveted African animals.
Such improvements are essential for the zoo to curb its declining attendance, Ehmke said. Though annual attendance was still slightly more than 1 million last year, he fears the 3.5 percent drop in guests might snowball in coming years unless the zoo stays competitive.
"It's indicative of the fact that there have been no capital investments in the zoo," Ehmke said. "We need to do new things to reverse that trend."
When the Legislature reconvenes in January, state Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, said it likely will again approve the zoo's $8.2 million that was removed from the bonding bill.
Zoo officials "explained how they were going to use the money, and their real goal has been to become self-sufficient," Ozment said. "We thought (the proposal) made sense in the long run."
Minnesota's two other publicly operated zoos, Como Park in St. Paul and Lake Superior in Duluth, operate mostly on city money and haven't experienced the same difficulties as the Minnesota Zoo, which is about 45 percent state-funded. However, Como and Lake Superior get about $150,000 each from state lottery funds.
The money the Lake Superior Zoo gets from the state, however small, is critical, but Director Mike Janis doubts whether his zoo will get the extra money it needs for improvement projects such as the Minnesota Zoo's. "Frankly, it's going to depend on the political climate," Janis said.
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Minnesota Zoo: http://www.mnzoo.com
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