By Gary Budzak
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is in Delaware County, which won’t be voting on Issue 6 in the May 6 election.
The Zoo’s current 10-year levy expires in 2015 and costs Franklin County home owners $21.29 per $100,000 valuation annually. If approved, the continuing levy would cost them $43.75 a year.
“The Zoo has been supported for the last 30 years from Franklin County voters, and so that relationship continues,” President and CEO Tom Stalf told The Gazette following the zoo board’s unanimous vote to place the 1.25-mill levy on the ballot. “We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to provide and we really looked very hard at the improvements and things that we need to do.”
If approved, the levy would allow the Zoo to make a number of improvements, Stalf said, such as revitalizing the North American and African forest sections, as well as the Discovery Reef. “The facilities already are in existence, but they are older and are in need of repair,” he said.
In addition, Stalf said the Zoo would like to have an exhibit at the front entrance called Conservation Cove, that would feature sea lions.
“We’ve also talked about remodeling Jungle Jack’s Landing for a facility called Wild World, which would also include many interactive fun educational facilities.”
The Zoo would also like to build a $50-$70 million facility in downtown Columbus near COSI on the Scioto Peninsula.
“It would be a satellite campus that would feature animals that you wouldn’t see on the Powell campus, so it would be rainforest animals, as well as a larger aquarium piece,” Stalf said. “There would be an admission charge, and we want to make sure that just like the main campus here, that it’s affordable.”
The non-profit Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is home to more than 10,000 animals representing more than 575 species. The Powell complex includes Zoombezi Bay water park, Safari Golf Course. The Zoo also operates the 10,000-acre The Wilds in Muskingum County.
“We look at this zoo, the size that we are, the collection that we are able to provide, and the only way that we are so successful is that relationship we have with the city and the county, especially the taxpayers,” Stalf said. “We’ve done our due diligence to ensure that fiscal responsibility when we’re building and designing facilities, and that’s why we felt that after 30 years, the Zoo is really a legacy and we want to continue that.”
A national political action committee called Americans For Prosperity (AFP) is opposed to Issue 6. AFP is funded by the Koch brothers, which supports conservative and libertarian causes, and Republican candidates.
Another group, Citizens for Responsible Taxation, said they like the Zoo, but are questioning the high salaries of the Zoo’s top executives and how the levy monies would be spent.
The Zoo provided a breakdown of the long-range capital projects for the next 30 years, dependent on Issue 6’s passage. The projects are: Zoo enhancements, 24 percent; asset protection, 20 percent; Downtown Adventure, 9 percent; Congo Expedition, 8 percent; Shores and Aquarium, 5 percent; Southeast Asia, 5 percent; Wild World, 5 percent; Conservation Cove, 4 percent; region redevelopment, 4 percent; Tropical Encounter, 4 percent; Heart of Africa expansion, 3 percent; The Americas, 3 percent; transportation system, 2 percent; animal health center, 2 percent; education building and initiatives, 2 percent.
Levy supporters said the Zoo contributed $238 million to the central Ohio economy last year and drew two million visitors. The Zoo also employs 2,000 people.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-363-1161 ext. 340 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.