Evansville zoo eyes increase in private funding

(WISH Photo, file)
(WISH Photo, file)

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — Supporters of Evansville’s nearly 90-year-old zoo are pushing for a public-private funding model that would fix the city’s costs and bring in sponsors to help the zoo upgrade and expand.

Generations have flocked to Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden since it opened, but attendance has fallen since 2009, when a $15 million Amazonia section opened. Zoo officials hope to keep the zoo a vibrant place to visit by adding a penguin exhibit, a carousel and a playground honoring Donna the hippopotamus, a longtime zoo fixture who died in 2012 at age 61.

But all that takes money. The 50-acre government-owned and operated facility already has a budget of more than $4 million, the Evansville Courier & Press reported. Revenue last year topped $1 million, but director Amos Morris says the zoo will need more private support and possibly even a new governing model to make new projects a reality.

“It has been five years since the opening of Amazonia, and attendance tends to drop because people want to see what’s next,” Morris said. “Unless we can generate excitement, which we try to do with the resources we have, attendance will begin to drop. … That’s our biggest challenge, to do the ‘wows’ to keep people coming back.”

The zoo is preparing to launch its first capital campaign to raise money for the carousel and penguin exhibit, Morris said.

Morris said about 80 percent of accredited zoos in North America use a public-private partnership governance model.

“It’s a better management system for a zoo, where the city puts in its contribution as a partner, and contracts with a nonprofit to run and operate it.” Morris said. “That’s the model I would like to see. … What it does for the city operation is, it fixes costs, reduces exposure. … The city doesn’t really have to get involved in the administrative parts of operating the zoo.”

City Councilman Dan McGinn, the zoo’s former director, agreed that the model could work if philanthropy to the zoo increases.

“You have to take some steps. People around here in this community, we need to start thinking of the zoo as a subject of charitable giving and philanthropy,” McGinn said. “The big successful zoos have big corporate sponsors. They (sponsors) recognize a successful zoo brings in tens of thousands of people. …

“We need to turn the thinking around as a place where we should put our donated and corporate dollars involved. It’s good bang for your buck in advertising.”

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