Waco and McLennan County are poised to call a $14.5 million countywide bond election to fund an expansion of Cameron Park Zoo, which has been without a permanent director for more than a year.
The Waco City Council approved an agreement with the county this week that would have the county issue the bond, if voters approve, and pay the city monthly as the city carries out the expansion, with a total estimated cost of $15.3 million. McLennan County commissioners will consider the agreement during their meeting Tuesday.
A new black footed African penguin exhibit would account for almost $4.5 million of the expansion. African penguins are an endangered species, interim zoo director Johnny Binder said.
“Fifty years ago there were 146,000 pairs of South African penguins, and they’re down to 26,000 pairs now, so they’re in great need for conservation,” Binder said.
Binder has previously said zoo donors have expressed enthusiasm for the expansion and that he expects they would contribute to the work.
Plans also include an $8.3 million veterinary and educational complex, to be located near the zoo’s entrance. The building would house visiting classes and exhibits as well as school events and create more space for veterinarians to care for the zoo’s 1,628 animals.
“Currently, Cameron Park Zoo provides education programs to over 26,000 schoolchildren each year in a building that’s the size of a typical master bedroom in a home,” Binder said.
Terri Cox, new executive director of the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society, said attendance increases at the zoo when it makes additions.
“Each year that we have added a new attraction, we have seen increases, most of which have been sustained,” Cox said.
Zoo attendance spiked in 1997 and 2005 after major expansions, she said. A dramatic uptick in Waco’s tourism in recent years, driven by Magnolia Market at the Silos, has also spilled over to the zoo. Attendance hovered at about 350,000 in 2016 and 2017, and grew to almost 361,000 last year, she said. The births of an orangutan and lion also boosted attendance in 2016 and 2017, Cox said.
“Historically, we’ve seen a 20% or greater gain in attendance with a major expansion project,” Cox said.
The proposed expansion would also include a $375,200 renovation of a hoof-stock barn and $100,000 to remodel the existing animal commissary.
The city provides the zoo with an annual subsidy of about $2.7 million, which is not expected to change because of the expansion. New staffing and maintenance costs are expected to be covered by increases in revenue from attendance, Cox said.
The zoo’s admission prices are scheduled to increase next year by $2 a ticket, bringing the cost to $12 for adults, $9 for children and $11 for seniors.
The zoo is also operating under a new contract between the city and the zoological society that removes the society from day-to-day operations but preserves its fundraising role.
“Under the new contract, the city of Waco will manage the Zootique gift shop and all retail operations, the society will continue managing special events and fundraising for the zoo in addition to conservation and enrichment programs,” Cox said.
Former zoo director Jim Fleshman proposed the zoo expansion, then estimated to need a $12 million bond, to the city in April of last year, shortly before he resigned in the wake of an audit report that found lax cash handling practices and policy. The new contract between the city and zoo society was finalized by April this year.
If the county signs off on the bonding agreement the city approved Tuesday, the bond would be up for a vote in November, and development would start in March next year. The project is slated for completion between fall 2021 and spring 2022.
Before signing off on the agreement, Mayor Kyle Deaver and city council members voiced support for the project.
“Tourism is not a silver bullet for our economy, but I think now is the time for us to really solidify our place as the tourist destination in Texas because it is an important part of any economy,” District 4 Councilman Dillon Meek said.
District 3 Councilman John Kinnaird said the zoo is important to the public, and he has a personal love for penguins.
“I appreciate the zoological society and staff working together over this past year as we’ve kind of transitioned and reworked the relationship between the two a little bit,” Kinnaird said.
Also Tuesday, the council also approved an almost $500,000 Tax Increment Financing grant to pay for a new overflow parking lot at the zoo.