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Kansas City Zoo officials celebrate progress on 'game changer' new aquarium

 Randy Wisthoff poses with a sea otter mascot. If you look closely, you'll see Wisthoff is wearing a tie covered in sea animals.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Wearing a tie covered in sea animals, Kansas City Zoo CEO Randy Wisthoff poses in front of the aquarium construction site with a sea otter mascot.

The Kansas City Zoo's $75 million, 600,000-gallon aquarium is scheduled for completion sometime in 2023. 

Leaders of the Kansas City Zoo could not have a groundbreaking ceremony for a new aquarium because of the pandemic, but they celebrated its construction progress Monday as they launched a public funding campaign called Make Waves KC.

At 60,000-square-feet, the aquarium will be home to thousands of sea animals, such as rescued sea otters and octopuses.

The construction site.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga, KCUR
The Kansas City Zoo's new aquarium is scheduled to open in 2023.

The project is one legacy of outgoing CEO Randy Wisthoff, who is set to retire at the end of 2021 after 18 years. Wisthoff has long pushed for an aquarium at the Kansas City Zoo.

Before coming to Kansas City, Wisthoff worked as associate director at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha where he witnessed the addition of that zoo’s aquarium.

“The biggest game changer, deal breaker maker that we ever did there was when we built the aquarium,” Wisthoff said. “It changed the complexion of the zoo forever. An exhibit like that is a destination exhibit. It could be standalone. It could stand in any city as a free-standing aquarium where people would come from miles away.”

A view of the aquarium's exterior
Courtesy of the Kansas City Zoo
A rendering of the Kansas City Zoo's new aquarium.

Leaders project the aquarium will bring an additional 300,000 annual visitors and $14 million in yearly profits.

The project is the largest in the zoo’s history, with a price tag of $75 million. Almost 50% of the aquarium will be paid for by taxpayers in the Zoological District, which comprises Clay and Jackson counties. Kansas City is putting $7 million towards the project and the rest is expected to be raised through private donations. As of Monday, leaders still needed to raise around $5.5 million.

“I am so proud that we get to see one part of his dream come to fruition,” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said of Wisthoff's vision. “But more than that, we get to see this world-class zoo and the world-class city that we all deserve, that our children all deserve, and that generations ahead deserve.”

Tickets for the aquarium will be included in the cost of zoo admission, which is discounted for Clay and Jackson County residents.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.
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