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Akron Zoo seeking levy renewal

9/12/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Since the Mike and Mary Stark Grizzly Ridge exhibit opened at the Akron Zoo July 20, more than 109,000 people have visited the new exhibit in the first month, according to Akron Zoo officials. On July 24, 6,304 people visited, making it the largest single attended day in the zoo’s history. The new exhibit features grizzly bears, shown above, as well as river otters, red wolves, bald eagles and a walk-in aviary. Coyotes are expected to be on exhibit this fall as part of the new expansion.
Photo courtesy of the Akron Zoo
WEST AKRON — Summit County residents will be asked to support the Akron Zoo’s renewal levy in the Nov. 5 General Election.

This is the third time the 0.8-mill levy is on the ballot, according to zoo President and CEO Patricia Simmons.

“The original levy in 2000 passed by 1 percent,” Simmons said. “We asked this community, do you even want a zoo? We were thinking maybe we couldn’t fund it at a level that wasn’t professional. After it passed, we spent the next six years or so working to build the zoo they asked us for.”

In 2006, the first renewal of the levy passed with 62 percent of voters in favor of it, Simmons said.

“We moved the dial,” she said. “That was very, very important to us, to validate the fact that we were doing the right things for the community. We’ve continued to meet all of our promises, and we are hoping Summit County will come out and support us again.”

Simmons said the levy collects $8 million a year to fund the zoo’s operations. It costs residents $23 annually for each $100,000 in property value, she added.

The levy provides funding for about half of the zoo’s annual operating budget, Simmons said. The other half comes from fundraising and earned income from admission fees, membership and gift shop and concession sales.

The zoo has about 80 full-time employees, a number that expands to about 150 during its busy summer months, Simmons said. There are also more than 100 volunteers who serve a variety of roles.

Prior to the approval of the property tax levy, the zoo was supported by an annual grant from the city of Akron, Simmons said. She added that having the levy in place has enabled the zoo to make many improvements.

“It’s made us one of the finest small zoos in the country,” she said. “We could not have done this without Summit County’s citizens.”

The ballot issue comes at a time when the zoo is riding a wave of popularity brought on by its newest addition, Mike and Mary Stark Grizzly Ridge. It opened July 20 and has resulted in record-breaking attendance numbers for the zoo.

David Barnhardt, director of marketing and guest services, said the zoo set an attendance record July 24 with more than 6,300 people. He added that eight of the 10 days with the zoo’s highest attendance in history came in the month after Grizzly Ridge opened.

“Grizzly Ridge is the largest improvement we’ve ever done,” Simmons said. “It’s been very, very well received.”

She said the exhibit was created as other recent additions at the zoo have been, through a process of surveying members of the community and zoo members about what they want to see.

The past 10 years have seen the zoo move its main entrance from Edgewood Avenue to Euclid Avenue and open the new Barnhardt Family Welcome Center and Lehner Family Zoo Gardens, the exhibit Legends of the Wild and the Komodo Kingdom Education Center, which has hosted two popular ocean-based exhibits. The zoo also renovated the Farmland and added a solar-powered train, and opened the Conservation Carousel.

Should the renewal levy pass in November, Simmons said the zoo plans to embark on another major project during the next seven-year levy cycle.

“We will do some renovations or a complete reworking of an area of the zoo, plus something that is new and exciting,” she said.

The zoo has about 20 acres available to expand if that’s the direction it decides to go, Simmons said.

As for renovations, she noted that the tiger exhibit, which was state-of-the-art 20 years ago, is no longer acceptable for the zoo to participate in breeding programs, so that may be addressed.

“Some of our older stuff, although we keep it neat and tidy and well maintained, is not serving at the professional level we would like,” Simmons said.

The levy also supports the zoo’s education efforts through programming, she said.

The Akron Zoo is similar to Ohio’s other major zoos as far as its funding goes, Simmons said.

“All of the major zoos in Ohio — Toledo, Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland — have property tax levies and operate the same way we do,” she said.

She added that a 35-member Board of Trustees manages the operations and growth of the zoo and serves as stewards of the levy dollars. The board is self-electing, but some members are appointed through the city and county. The trustees meet between six and eight times a year, Simmons said.

Once the issue number is assigned for the levy, Simmons said a campaign to promote the levy will get underway, with yard signs, mailers and endorsements.

Should the levy not pass this time, Simmons said the board would likely work to place it on the ballot again. The renewal levy is slated to begin collection in 2015.

For information on the levy, go to voteforakronzoo.org.

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