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Detroit mayor plans to pull zoo funding

Web-posted Apr 13, 2005

Of The Daily Oakland Press

ROYAL OAK - The Detroit Zoo will no longer have a $3.6 million city-funded safety net.

The city of Detroit, searching for ways to get out of a $300 million budget hole, is ending its subsidy of the 76-year-old institution. A draft budget released by Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick would transfer day-to-day operations of the zoo and the Detroit Historical Museums to nonprofit boards.

"What has been coming has been in this fiscal year around $3.6 million, $3 and a half million," said Ron Kagan, the zoo's executive director. "That's going to disappear, and the only way to achieve that is to reduce expenses and increase earned revenue."

The zoo's annual operating budget is about $11.2 million, said Kagan. The state contributes about $600,000, and private sources, such as the Detroit Zoological Society, also contribute to the budget.

The end of the city's subsidy means the zoo will have to change the way it does business, said Kagan.

"What we have been doing over the last couple of months is taking a very hard look at all of our expenses and reducing them significantly," he said. "At the same time we have been looking at increasing our revenues."

The zoo already operates on a reduced schedule during the winter, closing down on Mondays and Tuesdays. Administrators laid off about 10 employees and plan to lay off another six to eight.

And the zoo closed the Belle Isle Aquarium on April 3 to further save money.

The zoo will raise admission fees by 50 cents across the board, said Kagan. Admission currently is $10.50 for ages 13-62; $8.50 for senior citizens 62 and older; $6.50 for ages 2-12; and children 2 and younger are admitted free.

The zoo had about a million visitors in 2004, said Kagan. Attendance is up about 15 percent year to date, he said.

"With a new polar bear cub, it's likely to go up quite a bit," he said.

The zoo also has negotiated a new gift shop contract that Kagan said may generate about $200,000.

Communities that don't support the zoo through direct financial subsidies benefit from it, said Kagan.

"We tried several times to get a regional tax passed (to support cultural institutions), and I think the situation illustrates how important that sort of things is," he said.

"The zoo is enjoyed by the entire region. I think all of those scenarios need to be explored to try to ensure that the zoo continues to provide so much for this region."

He said the zoo will try to keep its admission prices as reasonable as possible.

"I think it's important that cultural institutions should be accessible to people," he said. "It would be unfortunate if cultural institutions had to charge what sporting events charge or what you have to pay if you go on vacation somewhere."

The zoo, he stressed, is not in imminent danger of collapse.

"But we certainly need to make some major changes," he said.