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Without City Investment, The Kansas City Zoo's Aquarium Project Could Be Dead

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
The chairman of the Kansas City Zoo board says without a $7 million investment from the city a proposed aquarium project might die.

The chairman of the Kansas City Zoo Board says a $75 million proposed aquarium project might be dead if the city can't come up with $7 million.

“I’m concerned that it does not happen without that investment, without that partnership,” Todd LaSala said Thursday after appearing before City Council's Finance and Governance Committee.

The zoo has $22 million in private pledges to help pay for the 65,000 square foot aquarium. In addition, money will be used from the Zoo District's sales tax.

The zoo hoped the city would use $7 million from a recent general obligation (GO) bond issue to pay for the project. LaSala said some donors want to know that the city will invest in a building that it will own. “They really want to know that the city is going to invest in its own asset as well. It’s a fair thing for them to ask.”

But there seems to be little appetite on the council to use GO bonds for the zoo project. The committee approved a resolution from Councilman Kevin McManus that directs the city manager to take 60 days to explore different ways to raise the $7 million. The full council will vote Thursday.

Councilman Scott Wagner asked about raising ticket prices. “It does beg the question as to whether there was a consideration of simply raising the cost of admission to help build the aquarium," he asked Zoo Director Randy Wisthoff.

Wisthoff said the zoo is committed to not raising the admission price, noting increased ticket prices are not a good way to raise capital funds.

While the council seems disinclined to use bond money, there is support for the zoo and the aquarium project. “The folks from the zoo have been just dogged in pursuing this project,” McManus said.

LaSala said the aquarium would generate $44 million in economic activity for the city and create 100 jobs. Wisthoff said a world-class aquarium would bring another 400,000 visitors a year to the zoo, 80,000 of them from out-of-town.

The aquarium could also open the door to other major projects. The polar bears lead to the penguins and the penguins, Wisthoff hopes, will lead to sea creatures. “Each project kind of builds to something even bigger,” he told the council committee.

Sam Zeffis KCUR's metro reporter. You can follow Sam on Twitter @samzeff

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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