Reviving the zoo

Our view : A key to success will be sustainability in operations and revenue streams

September 16, 2008

A day at the zoo has been a family pastime for Baltimore parents and children for more than a century. And it's a tradition that seems set to continue now that the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore has won the official stamp of approval of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which renewed its accreditation over the weekend after a yearlong delay during which the zoo struggled to repair neglected infrastructure, raise salaries and get on a firmer financial footing.

The hard-won endorsement means the zoo will be able to keep getting animals on loan from other zoos and maintain its breeding programs that bring attention-getting baby animals to the park.

But zoo President Donald P. Hutchinson was right to caution that the 132-year-old park isn't out of the woods yet. The zoo's operating budget of $12.5 million, a third of which comes from state and local government, is barely enough to keep the exhibits open and pay staff; there's no reserve for unexpected needs or sudden emergencies.

Mr. Hutchinson says the zoo should have an operating budget of at least $16.5 million a year. An extra $4 million would allow it to add attractions regularly, mount a more effective marketing campaign and perhaps provide transportation for visitors to and from the Inner Harbor. Down the road, it might even enable the zoo to reduce or eliminate admission fees and significantly boost attendance, something it can't do now without risking falling back into debt.

The key to success may turn on the kind of corporate support Mr. Hutchinson is able to win. In the past, the zoo has often gone to the business community for big, one-time contributions earmarked for emergency repairs or a looming deficit. In the future, however, Mr. Hutchinson plans to emphasize sustainability. Instead of asking for a single $500,000 corporate gift, for example, the zoo might line up 50 companies to pledge $10,000 a year in memberships. That kind of sustainability means more than just keeping the zoo afloat from day to day; it requires the creation of reliable, long-term revenue streams that allow the institution to build for the future.

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is a regional park, not a destination zoo like its much larger cousins in Washington or Chicago. But it has plenty of things that make it attractive to Baltimore area visitors: It's closer than Washington and more manageable for parents with kids, parking is free, and there are lots of family-friendly activities, from its carousel and climbing walls to the giraffe feeding station and summer camel rides.

If the zoo can achieve sustainable operations with adequate funding that allows it to effectively market attention-getting special attractions such as Sampson the baby elephant and Anoki, its new polar bear, there's no reason it can't be as successful as comparable regional parks in Philadelphia and St. Louis.

The uncertainty over accreditation this year was a wake-up call to maintain this venerable institution as a viable operation. But it was also a reminder that there's still a lot of potential in our zoo if everybody is willing to pitch in.

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