Rethinking the zoo

Editorial Notebook

April 07, 2007|By Brooke Nevils

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is endangered.

Plagued by declining attendance, reduced funding, high ticket prices and facilities in disrepair, the zoo seems more a candidate for closure than expansion.

But some Baltimoreans are reluctant to give up on it, largely because of a sense of history and tradition that has endeared it to them.

"Every year we looked forward to going to the zoo," said Sarah David, a Johns Hopkins senior raised in Pikesville. "When I speak to other people who grew up in Baltimore, we remember the zoo as a part of growing up. It unites people, and in that respect, it's a very important aspect of the city."

But with a growing deficit and too few visitors, if things don't change in Druid Hill Park, the 131-year-old zoo will become just as Baltimoreans remember it: a thing of the past.

Far away from the Inner Harbor, with deteriorating facilities and without new attractions, the zoo faces a challenge in drawing the tourists it needs to grow.

The National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor welcomes 1.6 million visitors annually, 70 percent of whom are from out of state. The zoo, drawing only about 332,000, needs to capture that audience. The zoo's first priority is to offer a shuttle from the Inner Harbor, an idea that's been discussed for 25 years without being realized. It could also negotiate an admissions partnership with the aquarium, improve public transportation to Druid Hill Park, and advertise itself as a convenient alternative to the more crowded National Zoo.

"We're from the District, but I bring the kids here because I think it's kid-friendlier," says Koreen DeBerg, a Washington resident who also frequents the National Zoo. "The animals are easier to see. There's the playground, the train. It's just better for the kids."

While the zoo's location isn't ideal, it's not a key reason for too few visitors. The Baltimore Museum of Art, only minutes away, has seen a dramatic increase in attendance since it dropped its entrance fee. Free admission is a powerful booster: last month during the zoo's opening weekend, it lured 37,000 visitors.

"We come four or five times a year," says Sue Spencer, at the zoo this week with her family. "We have a membership, but if we didn't, we wouldn't come nearly as often. It'd be expensive."

To raise attendance, ticket prices must be lowered - but the zoo is caught in a money trap. It can't afford to lower its ticket prices without a committed following and it can't build on that following with its current high fees.

The zoo had hoped to get ahead of its maintenance needs this year with an extra $4 million in state funds, but its request was reduced to $1.9 million. That money and $235,000 in city funds will help cover the zoo's deficit and repair its infrastructure. By providing the zoo with a more secure financial base, zoo officials hope the money will give prospective donors confidence that the zoo is moving in the right direction - ideally, enough confidence that patrons will contribute the money to cover the funding shortfall.

But the zoo must do more than repair what it has. It needs to reinvent itself. It needs to be an attraction, not a relic, and the zoo realizes this: Plans are being made to transform the elephant exhibit, to bring more modern geographic presentations with a South America or Asia area, and to add a Ferris wheel to create more of an amusement park component.

It will take money to bring these plans to reality, and that means the zoo must first convert Baltimore's nostalgia into patronage.

"I haven't been to the zoo in years, but I'd be sad to see it go," says Ms. David. "But having good memories of the zoo doesn't necessarily mean that people are going to be willing to fight to save it or give money to maintain it."

An infusion of tourists might help the beloved landmark over these hurdles, but that would require an inspired outreach effort by the zoo, by the city's tourism bureau and by the city itself.

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