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City Council to consider income plan for zoo

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The city zoo plans a new exhibit for big cats at a cost of about $500,000. Donations for about 42% of the cost have been received, with the City Council being asked to consider using city funds for the remainder. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

New exhibit space to house large felines temporarily while their home is fixed

City of Roswell staff want to make the zoo less reliant on city funding for its operations, so, even as the City Council will decide about reversing an earlier decision on entry fees for the Roswell Adult Center, it is being asked to vote on an income-earning plan for the zoo.

The decision to have the City Council consider a “cost-recovery” policy was made Thursday by the City Council Finance Committee, which also voted to recommend providing $291,157 in city funds to supplement other sources of money for construction of a permanent “big cat” exhibit.

Plan to boost zoo income

The cost-recovery policy aims to have the zoo raise 50% of its operating costs, or about $325,000 a year, by 2022. It is on the agenda for the City Council’s Sept. 12 meeting.

The city has delayed implementing fees that were to take effect Sept. 1 for the Roswell Adult Center after public outcry, and the City Council is expected to vote at its upcoming meeting about putting indefinite holds on fees for that facility.

But City Manager Joe Neeb said that the patrons of the zoo are a different group than Adult Center visitors. He added that implementing a policy is one of the steps needed before staff can develop specific income-earning ideas for the Spring River Park & Zoo, which city staff now refer to as the Spring River Zoo.

“Right now we are generating $17,000 a year,” Neeb said, “or 2.6% of the budget.”

He said the zoo’s annual operating budget now stands at $667,000 and has been dropping in recent years as cost-saving measures have been implemented.

The revenue goals presented by Neeb originally called for the zoo to earn 15% of its budget for the 2020 fiscal year ending in June, 30% in 2021 and 50% for 2022 and beyond.

But several people at the meeting thought the 2020 figure, amounting to about $97,500, would be very difficult to reach.

“I don’t know how in the world we are going to get that done before the end of the fiscal year,” Zoo Superintendent Marge Woods said.

Neeb acknowledged that the goals could be difficult to meet. But he said that setting expectations is a City Council activity, with staff then charged with trying “their darnedest” to meet the goals. City Council also will have to approve specific fees or income-earning activities, with those ideas expected to take about three months to be passed through approval processes once a policy is implemented.

“We can always come back and amend the expectations if we find the scenarios are different,” Neeb said, adding that there are some zoos and attractions that earn 100% of their operating budgets.

As a result of conversations, the committee — which includes Chair Caleb Grant, Judy Stubbs, Steve Henderson and Jacob Roebuck — moved to alter the goals to 5% for 2020, 25% for 2021 and 50% for 2022 and thereafter.

Neeb and Roebuck also stressed that a cost-recovery plan is required to complete the zoo master plan approved by the Roswell City Council in March 2018. Roebuck said that councilors should rescind the master plan if they aren’t willing to implement a cost-recovery policy.

A cost-benefit analysis identified several different possibilities for generating income, Neeb said. Those include on-site donations; entry fees; birthday parties or other individual events; fee-based and zoo-organized events, fundraisers or programs; sponsorships; and partnerships with businesses.

The Friends of the Zoo support group would continue to raise money for capital improvements or other large projects, and their funding would not be considered part of the zoo’s earnings.

The committee voted 3-1 to have the City Council consider the policy. Councilor Stubbs voted in opposition due to a few concerns, including questions about whether the income goals are feasible and her view that the city has more “relevant” priorities.

Space for large felines

Because the zoo needs to remodel its current bear and mountain lion exhibits, city staff have decided to create a new exhibit space across from the buffaloes in an area where prairie dogs now live.

In past discussions, the proposed new space has been referred to as the jaguar exhibit, the “interim” mountain lion exhibit or the “future cougar exhibit.”

“Lots of different critters could go in there,” said Neeb. “We are not building a temporary or interim exhibit. We are going to put animals in there temporarily, and then we are going to fix their exhibit and move them back out of there.”

The estimate for building the exhibit as described in the master plan was $1.3 million. A scaled-back version is for $500,000.

The revised plans increase the size of the enclosure to 9,583 square feet for about $150,000 and the size of a night house to 961 square feet at a cost of about $350,000, with the new night house expected to resemble a log cabin. Other features, such as ponds, rocks and logs, also are planned.

“This is to keep that expectation that the zoo is something different,” he said. “It is a new attraction.”

Neeb said that money from the Friends of the Zoo, the Safari Club and other donors have provided $208,843 toward the project.

Councilors Roebuck, Henderson and Stubbs voiced their support for moving the project forward by recommending the city transfer $291,156 out of the general fund cash-on-hand to the zoo. The motion passed, 4-0, with the matter also on the Sept. 12 City Council agenda.

“When I see that 42% of the cost has been donated,” said Stubbs, “I think it is really important that the city go ahead and make this budget adjustment to show that the public money has been well spent.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.