Sedgwick County Zoo, Exploration Place encouraged by county plan to restore funding

Two of Wichita’s major attractions are beginning to feel a renewed sense of stability about funding from Sedgwick County, which might eventually lead to renewed discussions about new exhibits.

Officials from the Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place say they are encouraged not only by restored funding recommended for them in the county’s $413million budget proposal, but from county manager William Buchanan’s interest in offering them five-year funding agreements.

“It’s like a strong handshake,” said Scott Ochs, president of the Sedgwick County Zoological Society, which funds the zoo along with the county. “It’s kind of the county saying, ‘All right, here’s what you can expect from us.’”

Neither entity has had that feeling since the recession hit about five years ago. Both used to have multi-year agreements with the county, which allowed them to plan activities for more than a year at a time and raise money for capital improvements from private donors. But those agreements were dropped when the economy nosedived, and they have been operating year to year with the county since then.

“We’re going to reinstate them, which I think is a good deal, primarily so both of those agencies have some sense of stability, a sense of security for the future,” Commissioner Dave Unruh said.

With such agreements, the zoo and Exploration Place could begin thinking about new exhibits again, said Unruh, who serves on the zoo’s board.

The County Commission will vote on the budget on Aug. 7 after two public hearings, which start this week. Then the agreements would have to be negotiated.

“We certainly are open to have that conversation with the county,” said Jan Luth, president of Exploration Place. “Whenever you have things like that, it can be very helpful. One might call it a vote of confidence about your relationship.”

Elephant exhibit on hold

At the zoo, plans for its elephant exhibit have been on hold, and will continue to be on hold until the new budget is approved and an agreement on long-term funding is reached, Ochs said.

The zoo was about a month away from announcing a new elephant exhibit in 2011 when it was forced to eliminate six positions. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is requiring that all zoos it accredits have space for at least three elephants by September 2016. The Sedgwick County Zoo has two female elephants, Stephanie and Cinda.

“We would like to add some of those additional staff back, because they’re critical,” Ochs said. “Looking at future exhibits, we have been in just a tread-water mode the last two years.”

The zoo, which opened in 1971, is a private-public partnership. This year, the county has been paying 44 percent of its operating budget while the zoological society is paying 56 percent from admissions, memberships, sales of food and gift-shop items, grants and other revenue sources.

Ochs said the zoo has had many thoughts about new exhibits if funding ever stabilized, but, he added, “We’re not prepared to talk about those yet.”

“At this point, we are kind of breathing a sigh of relief because we are very, very pleased with what Bill Buchanan recommended,” he said.

‘Non-sustainable track’

Buchanan’s proposed budget calls for restoring $373,226 to the zoo next year. The zoo has lost $880,500 in county funding over the past two years, and was on what its executive director, Mark Reed, called a “non-sustainable” track.

Ochs said the zoo isn’t looking for the county to make up the losses of the past two years.

“Let’s just get on with our partnership and move forward together,” he said.

“We’re hopeful that we’ve turned a corner, and that by this time next year we might be back at looking at growth and looking at future plans,” Ochs said.

Buchanan proposes restoring $100,000 to Exploration Place next year. The 13-year-old science center has lost about $400,000 since 2009, Luth said. While the proposed budget wouldn’t restore all the lost funds, Luth said, “It’s a magnificent thing for us. We’re very grateful.”

Luth said Exploration Place is funded about 50 percent from the county, and the rest from revenue from admissions, store sales, memberships, education programs and donations.

Exploration Place had closed its cafe and reduced staffing to cut expenses during the economic slump. It will continue to maintain a lean staff and has no plans to reopen the cafe because it is satisfied with its snack amenities, Luth said.

The restored funding will be used for maintenance of its architecturally unique building on the Arkansas River in downtown Wichita, where 2.5 to 3 million people have visited over the years, taking a toll on the facility.

“This is our iconic building for the city and the region, and it’s very important to maintain it in the way it was intended to look,” Luth said. “This building will stand the test of time and people will study it in the future. It is very important we take care of it responsibly.”

Exploration Place has been able to plan and develop exhibits through recent years thanks to the county’s support, Luth said. Since the county stepped in as partner in 2006, Exploration Place has been able to plan the future and continue to rejuvenate its exhibits, she said.

The proposed five-year funding agreement would enhance that.

“It would enable us to continue to focus on moving forward and not just surviving,” Luth said.

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