Minnesota Zoo seeks $15 million slice of bonding bill

Funds would support needs in Discovery Bay, snow monkey exhibit, infrastructure

by Howard Lestrud

ECM Political Editor

A request for $15 million in bonding funds is being made for the Minnesota Zoo, located in Apple Valley.

If approved by the Minnesota Legislature, this appropriation will fund capital asset preservation improvements and betterments to the infrastructure and exhibits at the Minnesota Zoo.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, is intrigued by a Minnesota Zoo visitor at a Environment, Economic Development & Agriculture Division Committee hearing last week. The visitor brought by Kevin Weir of the Zoo is a slow loris. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, is intrigued by a Minnesota Zoo visitor at a Environment, Economic Development & Agriculture Division Committee hearing last week. The visitor brought by Kevin Weir of the Zoo is a slow loris. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

A hearing was held Thursday, April 4, before the Senate Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Division Committee to hear Senate File 513 carried by Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley. The committee heard 24 bonding requests.

Clausen brought some Zoomobile animals with him to underscore the need. Making their home on two portable trees set up in a Capitol committee room were two slow loris Southeast Asia primates.

Kevin Weir, supervisor of the Zoomobile Outreach Program, said the program touches 55,000 people annually and involves 550 hours of programming. The Zoomobile is a direct connection between the animals and people, an overall mission of the Zoo.

Lee Ehmke, director of the Minnesota Zoo, outlined the need for more capital investment in the zoo and said it is because of state support that the zoo has become a world-leading zoo. Ehmke said the zoo has become much more self reliant. In the past, the zoo’s operations were funded 60 percent by biennial appropriations. That total has been reduced to 29 percent.

Over the past 40 years, the state has invested millions of dollars in capital improvements at the zoo, one of only two state-owned zoos in the nation.

These funds, matched by privately raised dollars, over the years have allowed the zoo to provide Minnesotans with memorable visits available nowhere else, while conducting critical conservation research and delivering effective environmental education on site through state-of-the-art technology.

The zoo is in its 35th year, and its facilities are aging and in need of upgrading, Ehmke said. He emphasized that the focus is on taking care of the existing assets of the zoo.

Currently, total asset preservation (infrastructure and exhibit renewal) needs $43.6 million, Ehmke said. He said the 2013 legislative request has been pared to $15 million.

The zoo request includes three components:

• Discovery Bay – Discovery Bay was first built in 1997 and after 15-plus years of salt water exposure and ongoing use, it has been in need of significant repairs. The zoo last year received $4 million of the requested $7 million to undertake critical maintenance. It’s is now asking for $3 million to complete this task. Part of the repair work will help the zoo accept a group of five or six Hawaiian seals, the most endangered seal in U.S. waters. Only 1,100 are left in the wild. The exhibit will be above water and below water.

• Snow monkey exhibit – This exhibit is in need of $6.7 million to provide the zoo’s resident population of snow monkeys with a habitat and support areas appropriate for today’s exhibition and animal welfare standards. The exhibit was opened in 1978 “and looks pretty much the same and in need of repair,” Ehmke said. A goal is to create a natural habitat for the monkeys from Japan. Funds, if approved, will be used to complete a renovation design.

• Infrastructure needs – Repairs to existing state-owned zoo buildings and grounds will consume $5.2 million of the total dollar request. The monies will help keep the buildings and grounds functional and safe. The zoo has identified and prioritized a series of infrastructure repairs needed for its buildings and facilities. These range from replacing sidewalks to behind-the-scenes needs for mechanical system improvements.

Ehmke said the Minnesota Zoo is a gateway for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. The zoo gets children focused on real things, an educational goal, Ehmke said.

The zoo has had an economic impact, as much as $146 million a year, Ehmke said. He said the zoo is always “shovel ready” for asset preservation.

“We are taking our place with other major cultural institutions in the state and these funds will allow us to continue and grow,” Ehmke said.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at howard.lestrud@ecm-inc.com

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