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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Lowry Park Zoo’s plan to pay for improvements worthy of approval

Lowry Park Zoo officials say they can save as much as $200,000 by using Tampa’s bonding authority when borrowing the money needed to build a new hospital and make other upgrades.

The zoo, which is owned by the city but run by a nonprofit organization, can back the loan with pledges totaling more than $6 million toward the $10 million project. It will be asking the city council on Thursday to act as a conduit in delivering the most favorable lending rates possible.

That’s good fiscal stewardship, which is characteristic of the organization that runs the zoo. Council members should give their approval.

The zoo is a treasure in the Tampa Bay area that consistently delivers a quality experience and has operated with a minimum of public contributions over the years.

In fact, most large- and medium-size zoos depend on tax dollars for half of their operating budgets. Less than 3 percent of Lowry Park Zoo’s $18 million budget comes from public funds. In other words, for every $3 in public funding received, the zoo raises $97 through admissions, donations and retail sales inside the park.

The zoo wants to have the planned upgrades, known collectively as the New Horizons project, well under way by 2015, when the Association of Zoos and Aquariums returns to review the zoo’s accreditation, a critical seal of approval by zoo experts.

As the Tribune’s Kevin Wiatrowski reported, the association’s visit in 2010 resulted in a list of needed improvements. That visit came after the resignation of former zoo director Lex Salisbury, who generated controversy and damaging news reports when he used zoo resources to bolster an animal sanctuary in Polk County. An association spokesman says progress on the improvements will be a factor when considering the zoo’s accreditation.

The New Horizons improvements include a larger veterinary hospital to treat the zoo’s 1,500 animals, a new commissary to prepare meals for the animals, a new conservation center for researchers, and improvements to the boardwalk and manatee hospital, one of three in the state.

Zoo Executive Director and CEO Craig Pugh says the zoo continues to seek pledges as officials move forward with construction plans. He hopes to raise $3 million more and have the project paid for when completed.

Because the zoo is backing the loan with pledges, the city will not be obligated to repay the loan should something go awry.

Lowry Park Zoo once was considered the worst zoo in the country. But that seems like ancient history now. And since its reopening 25 years ago, the zoo has been a source of pride for Tampa.

These improvements will make it even better for the patrons and the animals.

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