Sedgwick County approves funding agreement for zoo; expanded elephant exhibit planned

09/11/2013 10:26 AM

08/06/2014 9:19 AM

The five-year budget plan approved Wednesday for the state’s No. 1 family tourist destination gives the Sedgwick County Zoological Society the collateral, so to speak, it needs to ask the public for $10 million to $12 million for a new elephant exhibit.

And zoo leaders plan to do just that starting Monday.

“We could not have gone forward with the elephant exhibit without that commitment from the county,” zoo director Mark Reed said after commissioners voted 4 to 1 on a funding agreement through 2018 for the zoo that commits money for salaries and maintenance of zoo buildings, which the county owns.

It would have been difficult to go to private donors to ask for the money needed for a new elephant exhibit without knowing that money would be there from the county for salaries and maintenance for current exhibits, let alone a new one, Reed said.

The zoo is a public-private partnership. Money from the county always has gone toward salaries, and, in years past, toward maintenance. But the downturn in the economy forced the county to cut its funding to the zoo, which led to a $3.3 million backlog of maintenance projects. The zoological society raises money privately for exhibits and pays the tab for food, supplies, utilities and other expenses. The county had forged long-range funding agreements with the zoo before but had not had one in place for a while.

“This was a good agreement,” Reed said. “There’s been a lot of background work done on this, a lot of due diligence on both sides.”

Money will go toward salaries, maintenance

The agreement gives the zoo about $31.2 million during the next five years. It includes an average annual budget increase of about $387,000 – with the percentage increase ranging from 5.4 to 7.8. It also defers about $945,000 in principal and interest on a loan the zoo took out with the county to build a restaurant, Plaza Beastro, in 2008. With the loan deferral, the zoo annually will get between 7.8 percent to 12.3 percent more through 2018.

All but one commissioner, Richard Ranzau, voted to support the budget plan. Ranzau said he supported the zoo and understood why its leaders were asking for a guarantee of support.

But, he added, “they’re asking for financial certainty from a county that doesn’t have financial certainty. I see no evidence that we’re home free” on the economy.

Other commissioners said making the commitment was important for the community.

County Manager William Buchanan said maintenance at the zoo had been “woefully neglected” the past few years. The county its contribution to the zoo by 6.6 percent in 2012 and by 5 percent in 2013 for a cumulative cut of about $880,000.

One of the zoo’s most immediate needs is a roof for the jungle building, a job expected to cost at least $636,000 “if not substantially more” depending on the material used, Reed said. The building where animals are held in quarantine when they arrive needs $250,000 in maintenance. The amphibian and reptile greenhouse needs $250,000 in repairs and a new roof, expected to cost $200,000. A new bathroom is in the plans for the North American Prairie exhibit, expected to cost $200,000.

“This funding plan addresses the backlogged infrastructure needs along with the projected current and future infrastructure needs,” Buchanan said in a note to commissioners.

It also allows the zoo to hire nine new employees in the next five years. It will add a groundskeeper next year, a zookeeper in 2015 and a maintenance worker in 2016. If the zoological society is able to raise money for a new elephant exhibit, the zoo will have money from the county to hire five zookeepers and one manager in 2017.

Zoo association requiring more elephants

The zoo needs to add elephants to its collection or risk losing Stephanie and Cinda, two elephants from South Africa who have made their home in Wichita since 1972, a year after the zoo opened.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is requiring all zoos it accredits that have elephants have at least three females, two males or three of mixed gender by September 2016. That’s because elephants, particularly females, are social creatures and do better in a herd. The zoo’s elephant exhibit also is small and outdated. The zoo wants to bring in another female elephant and a male elephant to have a breeding family in Wichita with the hopes of elephant babies in the future.

The zoo says a survey last year showed that elephants are among the top three favorite animals of county residents and that Stephanie and Cinda are the most popular animals for the zoo’s “Meet and Greet” program with zookeepers.

Scott Ochs, president of the zoological society, said the campaign will begin immediately.

There is no cost to get new elephants. The AZA, which is the organization that accredits the Sedgwick County Zoo, has a management plan for elephants.

But elephants are expensive animals. They are big, obviously, and require a lot of room.

Commissioners said they don’t want to lose Stephanie and Cinda, who would be moved to other zoos if they don’t get new buddies.

“Monday we will be starting to reach out to our friends in the private sector and try to raise $10 to $12 million,” Ochs said. “We’ve got a plan in place, and we’re going to start executing it.”

The society will “approach people who’ve donated in the past,” Ochs said. “We do have a list of past donors, private individuals and corporations. We have a list of people who have shown interest in an elephant exhibit.”

The last capital campaign at the zoo was in 2007 for the $3 million Slawson Tiger Trek. That exhibit opened in 2009.

Some people already are making donations.

He said one of the zoo’s staff members went to a convenience store near the zoo this week, and the clerk “handed her $10 for the elephants.”

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