By Aly Van Dyke
Aging elephants unlikely to see new home
Although the Topeka Zoo doesn’t yet know how much of the extended countywide half-cent sales tax it will get, its priority from the beginning has been its elephants.
But with Tembo turning 45 years old this year, and Sunda turning 55, the odds they will see their new, bigger home aren’t good.
The best case scenario is to have the new elephant exhibit finished in five years, by 2020, said zoo director Brendan Wiley. While it is possible for Sunda to still be alive by then — Asian elephants have been known to live past 60 — Wiley never has heard of an African elephant living to 50.
“We’re hoping that it works out in a way that we can complete the elephant project timely enough that our current elephants get to see it,” he said. “Today, they’re both in good health, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are both geriatric animals.”
Voters on Nov. 4 approved extending the countywide half-cent sales tax for another 15 years, with the Topeka Zoo being chief among the projects and touted by many as one of the reasons the ballot measure succeeded so handily. Sixteen days after the vote, the Shawnee County Commission approved an interlocal agreement and project priority and cost list for the city of Topeka to consider.
That was two months ago, and the city has yet to make a move.
“At this point, we are in process,” said Suzie Gilbert, city communications and marketing director. “We will bring it forward to council for discussion and action at appropriate time.”
Gilbert didn’t respond when asked what that process involves and whether the plan was to wait until after the April 7 elections, when four council seats will be on the ballot.
Councilwoman Karen Hiller, however, said she “doesn’t like it” and made that known to Shawnee County Commissioners and city manager Jim Colson as soon as it was proposed. She questioned the priorities of the county’s proposal, saying “voters voted for the zoo, bikeways, streets and economic development. They expect that the street projects will be done, with cash, as in our other half-cent programs, in the first years.”
The county’s proposed pricing sheet is nearly identical to one presented to the Topeka City Council in July. The council ultimately couldn’t agree on a cost breakdown and scheduled a special meeting to pass a resolution for the ballot question without assigning prices.
The main change between the two lists is an increase to the amount of money to county bridges. At $2.17 million per year, $32.5 million would go toward county bridges by the time the sales tax is completed. The city previously considered putting $21.6 million toward county bridges.
Also increased from the city’s last list are funding to the Expocentre — from $40 million to $45 million — and to the Bikeways Master Plan — from $3.2 million to $3.5 million.
Otherwise, all the project costs are the same.
Hiller said she also wants to add language about expanded responsibilities of the Joint Economic Development Organization and update the economic development approach. She suggested elected officials from the two governing bodies meet as JEDO to reach an agreement, then have the separate bodies approve that proposal.
The interlocal agreement technically doesn’t have to be approved until next December, before the tax starts Jan. 1, 2017. However, the sooner the zoo knows what funds it will receive and when — Wiley doesn’t imagine the zoo will get a lump sum of the full amount — the sooner it can start planning and fundraising the projects, improving the chances of the aging elephants seeing their new home.
“We are not making any concrete plans until that process completes itself,” he said.
Wiley said the zoo’s first meeting on sales tax funds is Tuesday, during which he will meet with city finance officials to determine funding options.
The county proposed giving the zoo $10 million of sales tax revenue — less than a quarter of the $43 million estimated cost of the master plan. However, Wiley said, the full master plan could take at least 20 years, well past the duration of the approved sales tax.
In an effort to be realistic, he said, the zoo is focusing its energy and fundraising efforts on completing the first half of the plan — namely, expanding the elephant exhibit. The zoo identified the elephants as a priority in 2012, Wiley said, when there was much debate about retiring the aging creatures.
Even funding just the first half of the master plan will require private donations, he said, and the zoo plans to continue fundraising all the way through the 15-year tax — both in an effort to stretch the sales tax dollars and to have a successful zoo.
“When a community feels enough pride about their zoo that people are willing to invest private dollars in as well, that community ownership does a great deal for the success of a zoo,” Wiley said.
While the first phase hinges on more than tripling the elephant exhibit to 3 acres, there is a catch — three other projects have to be completed first:
■ Finishing the $3.3 million Camp Cowabunga, which Wiley announced last Tuesday, should be paid for solely through private donations. The exhibit will surround visitors with animals to make them feel as if they are on an African safari and will move the wild dog exhibit, a necessary measure to make more room for the elephants. Wiley said the zoo hopes to break ground later this year and to open the camp in the spring of 2017.
■ Moving the giraffes to a new, mixed species exhibit along S.W. Gage Boulevard.
■ Creating a new exhibit for the Sumatran tigers called Tiger Trail. That exhibit doesn’t have a design yet, Wiley said, but staff members hope it can house other species — perhaps red pandas — nearby.
“The priorities are set,” he said. “They almost have to occur in that order.”
That bumps back the elephant construction by multiple years, lessening the chances of Sunda and Tembo enjoying more space.
The zoo will have to play that situation by ear, he said. If one elephant was to die before the project is finished, the zoo will have to determine whether to bring in a new companion or retire the other and wait — until construction is finished or the population management group identifies new elephants for Topeka.
“We’re not sure yet,” he said, “but the answer is whatever’s best for that elephant.”