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Issue 6

Official: Levy not about new zoo downtown

Opponents say tax-doubling levy not needed

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Tom Stalf is adamant: Issue 6 is not about a downtown zoo.

The proposed 1.25-mill levy that will appear before voters on the May 6 primary election ballot is about maintaining the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium as one of the premier attractions in central Ohio, said Stalf, president and CEO of the zoo.

"That piece downtown is not the driving force of this levy ask," Stalf said. "It's keeping the zoo great."

But critics assert the proposed 50,000-square-foot indoor zoo, to be located on the Scioto Peninsula, is an expensive and largely unnecessary proposition, making it a "third" zoo in addition to the current campus and The Wilds, located in Muskingum County.

"Issue 6 is about a third zoo downtown, doubling your tax with a permanent levy," said Dan McCormick, an organizer of Citizens for Responsible Taxation, an anti-levy group.

"Our feedback from folks in the inner city is deep concern that the burden is being placed on so many with limited incomes living in a community that's the fifth-highest taxed in the United States."

Issue 6 would replace the zoo's current 10-year 0.75-mill levy, which expires at the end of 2015.

The 1.25-mill permanent levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $44 a year whereas the existing levy costs that same homeowner $21 a year.

Stalf argues the bulk of the $32 million raised annually from the levy will go toward the current 588-acre campus, which is technically in the city of Columbus and Franklin County, according to a lease agreement, but is surrounded by Delaware County.

He said the zoo is adding Central and South America exhibits to the current North America exhibit, which will be renamed the Americas.

The gorillas will be moved to a newly renovated area known as the Heart of Africa.

Additional plans call for a trolley system, a new animal-care facility and a revamp of Jungle Jack's Landing, which will include an exhibition center complete with animal demonstrations.

"The bulk of the money would stay here on the campus owned by Franklin County and the city of Columbus," Stalf said.

Still, he was upbeat about the prospect of the "Downtown Adventure" -- the indoor, multifloor downtown facility, estimated to cost between $50 million and $65 million.

It is expected to open in 2017. It would be part of a revamped Scioto Peninsula, to include a newly built Franklin County Veterans Memorial, shops, housing and COSI, which is already located there.

Preliminary plans call for the re-creation of rainforests, a large aquarium, interactive exhibits, restaurant, banquet hall and classroom space.

The facility would serve not only as an attraction for downtown visitors, but also would put inner-city kids in touch with zoo attractions that otherwise are out of reach, Stalf said.

McCormick said he believed the announcement of the Downtown Adventure facility was rushed, coming out after the first of the year.

In February, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners voted to put the levy on the ballot.

"They publicly stated that despite the outcome of this vote it will be built," he said. "They have resources available now to fulfill that mission without asking the taxpayers to fund it by doubling their current tax with a permanent levy."

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