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Columbus Zoo

Permanent tax would allow downtown expansion

Zoo's 1.25-mill levy on May 6 ballot also would bring upgrades to current facilities

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The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has proposed a continuing tax levy on Franklin County property owners that would help fund renovations at the Delaware County zoo and allow a new facility in Columbus.

The zoo's board voted unanimously to place a 1.25-mill tax levy for the zoo on the May 6 ballot in Franklin County. The proposal, which would raise the zoo's current millage rate by 0.5 mill, would need approval from the Franklin County commissioners before it could be placed on the ballot.

Franklin County property owners currently pay $21.29 per $100,000 in property value annually to support the zoo. That will more than double, growing to $43.75 per $100,000 of property value, if the levy is approved for the ballot and passed by voters.

The levy would raise about $32.5 million annually, with about 55 percent of the funding earmarked for capital improvements in Delaware County and Columbus, and about 45 percent earmarked for operating expenses.

Zoo President and CEO Tom Stalf said improvements in Delaware County largely will focus on renovations.

"It's not about making the zoo bigger, it's about making the zoo better," he said.

Proposed capital improvements at the Liberty Township site include renovations to the North America exhibit, a Conservation Cove featuring sea lions near the entrance to the zoo, and a tram system to run throughout the park.

"We realize the zoo is large and beautiful, but it's also a long walk," Stalf said.

Funds also would be used toward the completion of the zoo's Safari Africa exhibit.

The zoo expects to complete the first phase of the exhibit in May. Future developments for the project include the creation of an overnight safari camp, installation of a savannah grassland and relocation of the zoo's gorillas.

Stalf said the zoo also hopes to use levy funding to revamp its medical facilities for animals. He said plans include building larger operating and examination spaces, as well as a new quarantine facility.

Stalf said the zoo's current medical facilities were built in late 1980s and early 1990s. While he stopped short of saying the medical facilities were outdated, he said the zoo needs to look for ways to improve how it cares for its animals whenever possible.

"We never want to slip up on the improvements we (make), especially when we're focusing on animal welfare," he said.

The levy also would be a significant source of funding for the construction and operation of a planned zoo expansion in downtown Columbus, south of the COSI building on West Broad Street.

The project is one part of the Scioto Peninsula development plan, which includes the construction of a new veterans memorial, housing and a riverfront arboretum.

"We were very honored to be approached to be part of the Scioto Peninsula project, and we want to provide the same experience that we provide here in (Delaware County)," Stalf said.

He said the state-of-the-art facility will be a major draw for central Ohio residents and tourists. It will feature exotic animals, along with possible educational and classroom space, as well as overnight facilities for guests.

Stalf said zoo officials hope the downtown expansion will be open for business in 2017. He said the results of the ballot question would play a role in the design and construction of the project.

"There's no question the scope is going to be dependent on this levy," Stalf said.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, which opened as the Columbus Zoological Park in 1927 in Liberty Township, has received public funding for operations and capital improvements since the early 1950s. The city of Columbus took over operations at the zoo in 1951, running the facility until it handed off the duties to the nonprofit Zoological Park Association in 1970.

The city stopped allocating general-fund money for the zoo's operation in 1986, a year after Franklin County voters approved a temporary 0.25-mill property tax to support the zoo.

Voters bumped up the funding to 0.5 mill in 1990 and 0.75 mill in 1994.

In 2004, voters approved a 0.75-mill replacement levy to provide funding to the park through 2015.

A bill signed by Gov. John Kasich on Oct. 31 gave the zoo the ability to seek permanent levies for the first time. Previously, the length of zoo levies was limited to 10 years under state law.

Stalf said the residents of Franklin County have shown their support for the zoo at the ballot for nearly 30 years -- a trend he hopes will continue this spring.

"We're so proud of that relationship, and we look forward to the next 30 years," he said.

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