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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Clock ticking on upgrades, fixes at Tampa zoo

TAMPA — If things had gone as planned, Lowry Park Zoo would have a new veterinary hospital and feeding center up and running by now.

But more than a year past the original deadline of October 2012, the new features remain unbuilt. And the clock is ticking.

In early 2015, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will return to review Lowry Park’s fitness. It’s not clear what might happen if the new features aren’t operational by then, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the association.

“This would be a factor in the accreditation review,” Feldman said. “Significant progress is always taken into account.”

Hoping to jump-start construction, zoo officials have asked the Tampa City Council to help them borrow up to $6.5 million to get the work going. The city owns the zoo, which is operated by a private foundation. Council members will take up the request when they meet Jan. 9.

Even with the loan, the zoo still must raise another $3 million to finish the upgrades, which include a research center and improvements to the boardwalk and the manatee hospital, said Craig Pugh, the zoo’s executive director and CEO.

The association’s visit in 2010 — in the wake of a scandal involving use of zoo resources by former director Lex Salisbury — produced a list of improvements the zoo needed to make.

Following the critical visit by the association, zoo officials kicked off their $10 million “New Horizons” fundraising campaign in December 2010.

They began with a $1 million donation from the Jacarlene Foundation. Since then, the economy has made it hard to raise all the money the zoo needs, Pugh said.

To get the New Horizons project moving before the association’s review, zoo officials asked the Tampa City Council for help.

The proposal coming up next week would use the city’s bonding authority to borrow the money at a low rate. Interest income from the loan would be tax-free because of the city’s involvement. The loan would be secured by the pledges the zoo has collected on behalf of the New Horizons project.

The deal doesn’t put the city on the hook for repaying the fund should the zoo fail to do so, said Sonya Little, the city’s chief financial officer.

“The city doesn’t have an obligation to pay it back,” Little said.

The city has taken similar action on behalf of other nonprofits, including Moffitt Cancer Center.

The new veterinary hospital will replace the existing building, which was fine when the zoo opened 25 years ago but now is too small and outdated to serve the growing collection of animals.

The commissary, where zookeepers prepare meals for the animals, has already been demolished in preparation for a replacement. Preliminary earth work is underway behind a fence built along the zoo’s boardwalk that features Florida’s native plants and wildlife.

The aging wooden walkway and nearby manatee hospital are also part of the New Horizons effort. They need a combined $2 million in fixes. Also on the agenda is a new $3.5 million conservation center that will provide space for animal behaviorists and other researchers to study the zoo’s 1,500 animals, Pugh said.

The manatee hospital is one of three in Florida certified to tend to the injured mammals. The hospitals’ decades-old concrete tanks are showing their age and need upgrades, Pugh said.

“Our most important needs are central to animal care,” Pugh said.

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