House Capital Investment Committee visits Minnesota Zoo

Minnesota legislators gather on the Tropics Trail at the Minnesota Zoo to look at skylights that need replacing. Members of the Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee spent the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 29, looking at areas of the 485-acre zoo campus that are in need of improvement. Photo by Amy Mihelich

Legislators learn about proposed bonding project

The Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee, at the invitation of Rep. Anna Wills, R-Rosemount, toured the Minnesota Zoo on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

Committee members gathered at the zoo at 10:35 a.m., where they met with President and Director John Frawley, Vice President for Biological Programs Kevin Willis and Senior Director of Campus Planning and Management Derik Otten. Members learned about the zoo’s proposed $34 million bonding project and had an opportunity to see the areas of the zoo in need of improvement.

The tour began with a trolley ride through the animal service and asset preservation areas. Members could see the areas where animals live when they are not on exhibit, as well as the roads, gates and structures needed to keep the animals safe and well-maintained.

“All of these roads and pathways are not what the public sees, but they need just as much tender love and care as the roads and pathways the public sees,” Willis said. “You can see, there are lots of places where we need to do some work back here.”

Willis said the caribou barn and moose exhibit are examples of places that are unseen by public guests but in need of repair.

Next, members moved into the Tropics Trail where they saw the nocturnal exhibit that has been boarded up for eight years. Willis said they intend to remodel the long corridor to add in some more “creepy-crawly” nocturnal animals.

Minnesota Zoo President and Director John Frawley has re-imagined renovation plans for the zoo. He hopes to make improvements throughout the zoo that will revitalize the almost 40-year-old facilities and bring in more visitors. Minnesota legislators look at the current snow monkey exhibit and listen to Frawley explain his vision for renovation. Photo by Amy Mihelich

“The design will be like you are coming out of the ocean, into the bottom floors of the forest and ultimately into the upper floors, into the aviary canopy,” Otten said. “It’s a very exciting exhibit that they are going to be pulling together – a totally different look than this plywood boarding.”

As they continued through the building, members saw the massive skylights that provide nutrients and needed UV rays for the birds and animals in the Tropics Trail. Otten said the old windows are failing and some have broken. He said the glass can fall into the exhibits and cause hazards for the animals. The zoo has already replaced about one-quarter of the existing skylights, but Otten says more work is necessary.

Members also saw the snow monkey exhibit, which was scheduled to undergo a $17 million renovation. Frawley said these plans have changed; rather than putting all of the zoo’s resources into one area, they will make improvements throughout the zoo.

In addition, zoo staff outlined their plans for a new, elevated walkway, 10 miles of hiking trails, campsites and an adventure course. They said they want to do more to make the zoo a place for people of all ages.

“The Minnesota Zoo, that ‘new zoo,’ is now almost 40 years old,” Frawley said. “The biggest thing is that we want to shift from the blockbuster approach to more of a business model with return on investment.”

Throughout the morning, legislators had an opportunity to ask questions and speak with members of the Minnesota Zoo’s administration team. When their questions had been answered, Frawley gave a few closing remarks before escorting committee members back to their bus for lunch and the ride home.

“Let’s revitalize the zoo. Let’s get the monorail working, let’s get people transported around the zoo, let’s fix the nocturnal trail, and let’s put that asset preservation money to work,” Frawley said. “It’s not exciting, it’s not sexy, but it’s what this zoo needs right now. And so that’s why I’ve shifted to this focus.”

Contact Amy Mihelich at [email protected].