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Zoo Tax Would Build New Exhibits And, Supporters Hope, Tourism

Kansas City Zoo entrance. (KCUR, 2011)
Kansas City Zoo entrance. (KCUR, 2011)

By Maria Carter


KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Kansas City Zoo was almost shut down less than a decade ago but has bounced back with new exhibits, such as Nikita the polar bear, and growing attendance, with more than 600,000 visitors a year. Zoo leaders want to continue that growth.

Zoo management has a ten-year master plan, and supporters say the one-eighth-cent sales tax on the ballot in Clay and Jackson counties would help put that into place.

The zoo's executive director Randy Wisthoff points to the first planned project.

"We'll have an outdoor exhibit that features African or South American penguins. Also an enormous cold weather penguin exhibit that will have underwater viewing and feature some of the iconic penguins," says Wisthoff.

The St. Louis Zoo has a penguin exhibit. It gets about 3 million visitors year, 5 times as many as the Kansas City Zoo. Wisthoff says penguins and other plans, like a new area for big cats and an ape exhibit, will hopefully draw more than a million visitors through the gates in Kansas City.

Supporters Point to Jobs and Tourism
Wisthoff says one benefit of all those visitors would be jobs. The zoo would need to employ more people, but the zoo could also drive tourism.

"An awful lot of people come to Kansas City for a long weekend. Well, we would like to offer a world class zoo that might cause them to stay an extra night or provide another activity in town," says Wisthoff.

Wisthoff says the zoo's goal is to almost double attendance over the next decade. That prospect has the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association President Rick Hughes excited.

"That's a real meaningful number when you can say 300,000 of those people are coming in from out of town," says Hughes.

Even though supporters are eying more out-of-town visitors, residents in counties that approve the tax would get a break: half-price zoo admission - four free days a year - and free school trips for certain grades.

Opponents: Don't Charge Everyone
Steve Phipps doesn't think the benefits are a good enough reason. He's with Common Sense for Common People, a Tea Party group in Clay County. Phipps says many people will be paying for a zoo they don't visit.

"You use a facility, you use a service, you pay for it. You don't saddle that burden on everyone else," says Phipps.

Phipps says the issue should be about what's best for Clay and Jackson counties - not penguins.

"I don't know of a single person I talked to that doesn't like penguins. Unfortunately in a case like this, we have to look behind the cute cuddly penguins," says Phipps.

If supporters are successful in their campaign, the Kansas City Zoo would see an influx of cash. The total yearly budget for the zoo stands at less than $12 million a year right now. The proposed tax would generate as much as $14 million each year.

Election Details
The election on the proposed one-eighth-cent sales tax takes place in Jackson and Clay counties Tuesday, November 8th.

Related articles
Economy makes zoo tax a hard sell, but not an impossible one (Kansas City Star)
Zoo Campaign Kickoff (KCUR)

Kansas City Zoo
One Zoo for All campaign
Kansas Convention and Visitors Association


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