Politics & Government

Sedgwick County Zoo asks for $9 million in donations, $6 million from county for upgrades

Virtual tour of possible future improvements to the zoo

The Sedgwick County Zoo is asking for millions of dollars in donations and public funding to pay for a highly-endangered animal’s habitat, new visitor entrance and office, an electric train and other improvements.
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The Sedgwick County Zoo is asking for millions of dollars in donations and public funding to pay for a highly-endangered animal’s habitat, new visitor entrance and office, an electric train and other improvements.

When you have to go to the bathroom in the furnace room, it might be a sign you’re in need of some new office space.

But that’s the situation administrative employees of the Sedgwick County Zoo face daily.

“This is a 60-year-old building that we have here,” said County Commissioner David Dennis. “It was initially a plastics factory . . . it was supposed to be torn down. This is the kind of conditions that our folks are living in every single day to support our zoo.”

Help is on the way.

New office space is part of a planned $15 million upgrade of the zoo’s entryway, gift shop, a ride-on solar-powered train and a leopard habitat.

Dennis in bathroom.jpg
Sedgwick County Commissioner David Dennis stands in the furnace room that doubles as employee bathroom at the Sedgwick County Zoo. Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

That will be phase one of a master plan to update the county’s No. 1 tourist attraction for the next 25 years.

On Wednesday, the commission is poised to approve the first funding for the zoo’s facelift, a $6 million allocation. The other $9 million will be raised from the community by the Sedgwick County Zoological Society.

Zoo spokeswoman Jennica King said the private fund-raising effort will officially launch as soon as the county approves its funding. But they’ve already got a $2 million “challenge grant,” from a donor who will match other donations to that amount.

The goal is to have the upgrades to the zoo in Wichita completed in time for its 50th anniversary in 2021.

The private donations would pay for a $2.5 million expanded habitat for the highly endangered Amur leopard, a $1.5 million gift shop expansion, $2.5 million electric train to transport guests around the zoo and $2.5 million for half the cost of new administrative offices.

County funds would cover $2.5 million of administrative office construction and $3.5 million for the entryway.

Visitors to the zoo on busy days would notice better customer service and shorter wait times, King said.

The current entrance was built when the zoo opened and saw an estimated 100,000 guests a year. More than 500,000 visitors come every year now.

“The current building has three windows for ticketing,” she said. “When you have 10,000 people coming to the zoo on a busy day during the summer, the lines get long. ... It’s just not up to the industry standards.”

The new entrance will have eight ticket windows, seating available along the waiting area and a better flow to the membership office, which barely has enough room for a parent to maneuver a stroller, King said.

“It’s going to have a much better flow for the guest, be much more welcoming and be more in line with the world-class zoos,” she said.

The plan calls for building a new administrative building at the zoo’s entrance to replace the current building on the edge of the zoo’s property.

“It’s not that the buildings are falling down around us and we’re in incredible hardship,” King said. “But we’re in a small building that was meant to be a stroller shed that we’ve turned into an office.

“It’s how it’s always been, and now we have the opportunity to improve, and we’re very excited about that.”

Alika, a five-month-old western lowland gorilla at the Sedgwick County Zoo, has started to crawl and venture out a little from her mother, Barika's arms. Senior keeper Danielle Decker is excited to see in the coming months how Alika will start mov

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.

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