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Oklahoma City Zoo may get $70M in renovations, new exhibits

February 3, 2019

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Over the next nine years, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden could see $71 million in renovations and new exhibits.

Oklahoma City Zoo Executive Director and CEO Dwight Lawson said this is the second time the 10-year master plan has been done in correlation with the strategic plan, which helps the zoo prioritize projects based on revenue projections and other funding sources.

The $71 million in projects spans from 2018 to 2028 and includes $6 million in fundraising by the Oklahoma City Zoological Society and less than $9 million in borrowing or bonding to ensure timely completion.

Since 1990, the zoo has received one-eighth of a cent from the city’s sales tax collections.

Lawson told the Journal Record that the sales tax is an important element in the planning process because the leadership knows it will have a funding source for the projects. Other zoos or publicly funded attractions have based their capital projects on what other capital projects are done in the city.

The update and new exhibit ideas were brought to light through a formal planning process. Zoo staff members, the board of directors from the zoological society, and a focus group with Zoo Friends members participated in the process.

“Those focus groups filled up quickly,” Lawson said. “People were very thoughtful with their ideas. I’ve been impressed when we’ve done the focus groups.”

A bulk of the update will be done near the zoo’s entrance, with the current pachyderm building being renovated as part of an 11-acre $27 million Africa concept. It’s still in the design phase, with construction bids expected to be released in 2020 and work completed in summer 2022.

As part of the concept, the three giraffes that are housed toward the park’s southwest side will be moved to the area near the front. The zoo will work with other zoos to get more giraffes, with plans to grow the herd to about 15.

The Africa space could also include penguins. The African painted dogs will be moved into the concept as well.

The pachyderm building will be renovated into an exhibit and educational space. People will also be able to feed the giraffes through the windows.

The pachyderm building is one of the zoo’s original facilities, so to help with the renovation costs, Lawson said the park plans to seek tax credits through the National Park Service and the state’s historic tax credit program.

The building’s renovation into an educational and event space will provide the zoo another facility that can be rented for events, which help bring in more revenue. Those events can also bring back people who haven’t been to the zoo in several years, which is another reason why new attractions are important, Lawson said.

“We want to keep people invested,” he said. ”(New exhibits) give us a chance to tell our story and tell what we know about wildlife and how to care for them.”

With the Africa concept in the pipeline, the Galapagos tortoises will be moved to the children’s zoo. The $600,000 new habitat is already out to bid, with a groundbreaking planned for this summer. The new home will open in summer 2020.

This fall, the zoo is planning two groundbreakings for new exhibits. The zoo’s herpetarium will have a new wetlands feature built at its entrance. It will be home to frogs and turtles, with water recirculating throughout the exhibit.

The Andean condor habitat, which was built when the zoo was at Wheeler Park, will be removed. The condors are moving into old but new-to-them habitats on the park’s west side. The habitats were built by the Work Progress Administration and will give the condors more room to fly. The habitats are located between the zoo’s Noble Aquatic Center and the Rosser Conservation Education Center.

Other projects in the zoo’s pipelines are a 3-acre expansion for Sea Lion Cove, a new farm area, and a conservation preserve, which will be where the giraffes are currently living.

The Sea Lion Cove expansion will include a new 12,000-square-foot building with 7,500 square feet of hospitality rooms.

The farm is an idea on the long-term list. The site would be the existing Zoo Amphitheatre, but Lawson said there are no plans for the amphitheater to close. The zoo has a tentative idea for the site so in the event the amphitheater does close, there will be a plan for how the space can be used.

The 5-acre farm would have traditional and new-tech farm structures, as well as gardens, vineyards, and orchards.

The strategic plan includes intermittent ticket price increases. In 2017, the zoo raised ticket prices $3, going from $8 to $11. Senior Marketing Director Greg Heanue said the zoo did not see a dip in attendance, even with the higher price. Annually, the zoo sees more than 1 million people go through its front gates.

Lawson said he’s noticed a lot of the planned updates since he’s been there. He said the pachyderm building is intriguing. The regulations for housing animals have changed as well. The building once housed elephants, but now has empty spaces.

“We’re converting animal space into people space, so I’m excited to see what we can turn that building into,” he said.

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Information from: The Journal Record, http://www.journalrecord.com

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