$3.7 million bond will pay for South Bend zoo improvements

The City of South Bend no longer runs the Potawatomi Zoo, but it’s still in the business of making sure the property doesn’t become run down.

The city plans to make a $3.7 million contribution toward capital improvements at the zoo.

On September 12th, ground breaking ceremonies will mark the start of construction on a $3 million zoo improvement project that every single zoo visitor will notice.

“New entrance, new bathrooms, new entry area here going up into the zoo,” said Zoo Director Marcy Dean. “The building itself is going to be gorgeous. It’s glass on both sides.”

The new facility will allow for an expansion of the gift shop and have an entrance specifically for field trip participants.

The city’s promise to contribute $1.5 million to the zoo entrance project will be kept through a planned $3.7 million dollar bond issue.

The $2.2 million difference will go to the zoo too. It will primarily make a difference in the lives of zoo residents as the facility faces reaccreditation next year.

“New roof, we're going to need new containment for our leopards, and our lions,” said Marcy Dean.

“It’s still the city’s property and we want to make sure we invest in it,” said Aaron Perri, Executive Director of Venues Parks and Arts.

It’s clear, what the city doesn’t want is a return to the day where it ran zoo operations.

A five year management contract with the Potawatomi Zoological Society has been extended for another 15 years.

“Attendance is up every year, we have brought so many new animals in,” said Dean, who now has her sights set on acquiring a giraffe. “The carousel’s open, things are running smoothly. We’re looking at the future.”

In the extension agreement, the city is looking forward to a future where its subsidy of zoo operations continues to drop dramatically. “It cost the city substantially less to operate the zoo under this partnership model. When the partnership was first conceived, it was about $900,000 a year. That has reduced to about $700,000 a year. By the end of the partnership it'll be right around $200,000 to 300,000 by the end of the 15 year agreement,” said Perri.

In the new agreement, the city also promises to contribute another $1.1 million to capital improvements at the zoo in year five.

That’s when Dean says the zoo hopes to renovate the west side of the property by installing a brand new North American exhibit for bears, cougars, and birds of prey.

The South Bend Board of Park Commissioners has already approved a 15 year extension to the private public partnership that relieves the city of operating the zoo.

At a meeting on Tuesday of next week, the South Bend Board of Works will be asked to approve advisory services for the preparation and issuance of tax exempt bonds in support of the zoo.

Perri says the bonds will be repaid using Economic Development Income Tax dollars. The impact of the payments will be lessened as the zoo’s operational subsidy declines.