As a park board member in the late 1980s, Anita Gorman served when the Kansas City Zoo was struggling in a big way. Attendance was stagnant, needed repairs weren’t being made and even the zoo’s future was in doubt.
One day, a Friends of the Zoo official asked Gorman to attend a meeting of the civic group. She asked where it met in the zoo.
“We don’t meet at the zoo,” Gorman was told. “It’s dangerous out at Swope Park.”
That response floored her, largely because it wasn’t really true yet was being spread by someone who should have known better.
In an interview this week, Gorman says that incident and other problems at the zoo prodded her and others to finally support a huge zoo expansion. Those efforts paid off when voters boldly and somewhat surprisingly approved a property tax increase on Aug. 7, 1990.
Fast forward 25 years, and the zoo has become a constantly evolving, top-flight attraction that Gorman and other metropolitan area residents can take great pride in supporting.
Friday the facility officially opens its Orangutan Canopy, which is scheduled to feature the animals in a naturalistic, visitor-friendly exhibit. It’s the latest upgrade made possible by yet another public vote of confidence — a tax increase for the zoo passed in 2011 in Jackson and Clay counties.
The strong progress at the zoo is a much-needed reminder for Kansas Citians that it often takes time and money to pursue grand visions for worthwhile projects.
This community always needs leaders who have a passion for making improvements to regional amenities such as the zoo. But those leaders also need to be able to rally many others to invest in that passion.
In addition to the all-important 1990 zoo vote, other decisions also were crucial:
▪ In 2002, a revitalized Friends of the Zoo began managing the facility. The organization brought a fresh approach to running the zoo and better access to private funds.
▪ In late 2003, Randy Wisthoff was hired as the new director after serving at the highly successful Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. Today, Wisthoff continues to provide strong leadership that is focused on properly caring for animals and building popular new exhibits, including indoor attractions people can visit on hot summer days.
▪ Kansas City voters in 2004 approved $30 million in general obligation bonds to repair leaking roofs and other crumbling infrastructure; build what’s turned into a highly popular polar bear exhibit; and add paths to make it easier to get from the zoo’s entrance to the African exhibits.
▪ And in 2011, as noted, voters in Jackson and Clay counties took a significant step by passing an eighth-cent sales tax increase. The zoo has kept promises made at the time, especially in building a wonderful penguin exhibit and providing residents of the counties with free and reduced admission, plus educational programs for schoolchildren and teachers.
The changes have affected zoo attendance. After sagging below 500,000 a year in the late 1980s, admissions rose to just over 700,000 in 1998. Attendance fell in the first part of the next decade, but has rebounded strongly. In 2014, the zoo recorded 886,000 visitors and is on pace to slightly exceed that this year.
Moving forward, zoo backers should work with elected officials in Platte, Cass, Johnson and Wyandotte counties to see whether their voters also might want to boost their sales taxes to invest in a better facility and take advantage of benefits such as lower admission charges.
The zoo has come a long way in the last quarter century, thanks to a resurgence of public support as well as smart decisions along the way.