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Columbus Zoo Levy: Downtown Zoo
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The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is ranked as one of the nation’s best. It has grown immensely in the past two decades. Much of that success and growth is thanks to Franklin County taxpayers.
Since the 1980s, the Columbus Zoo has relied heavily on a tax levy to pay for capital projects that helped shoot the zoo to the top.
That levy is up for renewal. And for the first time in recent memory, it has organized opposition as some balk at the size of the increase and its permanence.
A rain forest tree canopy walkway, down below a crocodile slides along the forest floor, somewhere a Macaw cries out. Below the water’s surface sharks glide through the water – all of this in a three-story building on an acre along the Scioto River.
That’s what zoo officials want to build in downtown Columbus. It’s part of the Scioto Peninsula revitalization project.
“We were honored to be on the south side of COSI and be a part of this revitalization,” said Tom Stalf, Columbus Zoo president and CEO.
Stalf says the 50,000-square foot attraction will cost between $50 and $65 million. Part of the zoo levy would pay for it.
And he markets it as an option for people who cannot get to or don’t have time to spend at the large main campus in Delaware County.
“We want to serve the under-served,” Stalf said. “We want to make sure that people who don’t come to the zoo often, maybe they live in Grove City or south of Columbus, we want them to have an opportunity. People are loving the Scioto Mile. So we want them to have a place next to COSI to enhance their experience.”
Stalf says admission prices to the downtown zoo will be less expensive than the main zoo.
Too Many Zoos?
But some zoo levy opponents take issue with the downtown zoo, and for various reasons. They say with main zoo in Powell and the conservation center The Wilds in Muskingum County, and now one downtown, three zoos are too many.
If the zoo wants to build downtown, zoo opponent Johnathan Beard says voters should decide it separately.
“Projects like that should be uncoupled, and there should be two presentations, two things for people to vote on,” Beard said. “When you throw it all in together you’re funding bad with good.”
But Stalf says it’s common for zoos to have multiple attractions. He notes New Orleans’ Audubon Zoo has an insectarium and an aquarium.
“There are many cities that will have a piece with an aquarium as well as the zoo, and it’s a great fit because, although we have aquariums here on our main campus, we do not have the shark tank that we’re talking about or jelly fish and things that we’re going to represent Downtown,” Stalf said.
Stalf says the downtown zoo will feature species that are not at the main zoo. And he adds the satellite attraction will not compete with the larger zoo in Delaware County.
Veterans Upset, Overbuilding
Some Central Ohio veterans say they will vote against the levy because the downtown zoo is part of a larger downtown development plan which calls for the demolition of Vets Memorial. The new zoo would be built a half mile south of Vets.
Then there’s the worry about overbuilding. COSI struggled when it moved from its location on East Broad Street to its larger location.
Stalf says the zoo is not building to excess.
“We’re planning on building an appropriate-sized facility that enhances it all,” Stalf said. ”We’re not building something that we can’t afford. We’re building something that’s going to inspire people and drive the economic impact.”
The cost to operate the Downtown facility would be roughly $6 million year.
But if the levy fails, the zoo says all capital improvement projects would be in jeopardy.
“The master plan, the things I’ve been speaking on, would be completely revised, and we would not be able to provide the improvements that we’re planning,” Stalf said.
If voters approve, the downtown zoo would open in 2017.