Committee endorses $7 million for zoo aquarium, but not from general obligation bonds

The Star/file photo

Kansas City should invest $7 million in public money to build an aquarium at the zoo, but that doesn’t need to come from general obligation bonds, a Kansas City Council committee agreed Wednesday.

Members of the city’s finance committee voted for the resolution and sent it to the full council for consideration Thursday.

The resolution sponsored by council members Alissia Canady and Kevin McManus originally stipulated the city’s contribution toward a $75 million saltwater aquarium should come from voter-approved general obligation bonds for public facilities.

A substitute resolution Wednesday directs the city manager to find another source for the money.

The pushback against using GO bonds stemmed from concerns that the city should first address existing city facilities that are not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city is party to a consent decree with the Department of Justice to rectify that.

“We have no shortage of needs in our ADA obligations,” said Meg Conger, the city’s ADA compliance officer.

City Manager Troy Schulte estimated in January 2017 the list would total $100 million.

Representatives from the Kansas City Zoo were eager to focus on the educational and economic benefits of a roughly 65,000 square foot aquarium.

“Some kids in Kansas City will never get to see the ocean,” said Todd LaSala, chairman of the Friends of the Zoo.

He and zoo director Randy Wisthoff estimated an aquarium would draw an additional 400,000 visitors a year to the zoo, where attendance in 2016 surpassed 1 million. About 20 percent of them would be from out of town, creating a demand for hotel rooms and injecting other money into the local economy, they said.

In addition, an aquarium would create about 100 permanent new jobs at the zoo, Wisthoff said.

Wisthoff said the zoo has identified $22 million in private funding for an aquarium. Another $40 million would come from a zoo sales tax approved by voters in Jackson and Clay counties. With a city contribution, Wisthoff said, the zoo could swiftly close the remaining funding gap of about $6 million.

The zoo would separately seek to build a $15 million endowment.

“We really think that the city investment in a city-owned asset is an important step,” LaSala said.

The envisioned aquarium would contain about 750,000 gallons of saltwater in as many as 100 large and small tanks. It would include a tunnel allowing visitors to see sharks and other species swimming above them.

One possible location is the valley where the bear pits were in the old Kansas City Zoo. It would be an indoor, year-round attraction roughly the same size as the aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, where Wisthoff worked before being hired as zoo director here.

“The aquarium was the biggest change agent that we ever did at the zoo,” Wisthoff said of the Omaha project.

Admission to the Kansas City Zoo is currently $16 for adults or $8 for residents of Jackson and Clay counties.

Wisthoff acknowledged prices could rise to $20 and $10 by the time an aquarium opens in 4-5 years.

Related stories from Kansas City Star