The Little Rock Zoo is facing funding cuts that could see it close two days a week, but Director Susan Altrui says more investment will lead to a better experience and improved financial returns for the zoo and, ultimately, the city.
by Chris Price
The roar from the tigers’ exhibit will be a whisper compared to the roar of stampeding families on the steps of Little Rock’s City Hall if required budget cuts endanger the city’s zoo. The future growth and quality of exhibits and facilities at the Little Rock Zoo will likely need strict re-evaluating after the latest wave of budget cuts from the top and further cuts expected to come next year.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr. inherited a nearly $7 million deficit after taking office in January and was forced to find ways to bring the city’s budget under control. His plan includes cuts and layoffs across the Capital City’s 14 departments, including the Little Rock Zoo, the only zoo in the state accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
In mid-June, Scott accepted the recommendation of John Eckart, director of Little Rock’s Parks and Recreation Department, to close War Memorial and Hindman golf courses by July 4 and repurpose the land into park space with trails, recreational attractions and, possibly, extra space for the zoo. How the city will pay for the transformation is unclear.
While Scott’s position is unenviable, it is understood that the city’s spending needs to be reined in and better controlled. There are questions as to whether decreasing budgets, especially for the zoo, will hurt the institution and the city more than they will help.
“It’s no secret that the City of Little Rock is tightening its belt,” Susan Altrui, director of the Little Rock Zoo, says. “This is a necessary exercise and is affecting all departments of the city, including the Little Rock Zoo.
“We will see $46,000 cut from the rest of this year’s budget and as much as $92,000 moving forward,” Altrui says. “This is in addition to cuts that were already made to the zoo’s budget going into this year. The zoo’s budget was cut by nearly $300,000 from 2018 to 2019.”
The city’s budget cuts may be necessary, but zoo and tourism officials say the organization should be given more funding as an economic investment rather than being forced to scrimp and save. Altrui says a budget cut of $46,000 won’t make or break the zoo, but not investing in its future will.
She says the zoo is a place where animals have excellent care and the community has experts offering education on a high level. It offers Arkansas families and children the opportunity to connect with each other and the natural world – including seeing animals from multiple continents, like penguins, giraffes and gorillas, that would not otherwise be available. The zoo instills a love for animals and the preservation and conservation of their natural habitats.
“Families travel to visit zoos, and our data shows us that we have the potential to more than double our current attendance, which is already one of the largest in central Arkansas,” she says. “We could have the largest tourist attraction in the state right here in Little Rock and one of the best in the region.”
While the zoo is not in danger of going out of business, it needs increased funding – both public and private – in order to improve its return on investment.
“Little Rock needs family attractions like the Little Rock Zoo to draw people in from surrounding areas and give them a reason to stay and play. It will help drive economic activity and help drive overall sales tax revenue growth – something the city desperately needs,” Altrui says.
“We know that the zoo is generating important economic activity from out-of-town visitors who are spending money in the Little Rock area. If we invest in the zoo and can double the number of tourists, as our data suggests, then we can provide a huge economic impact to our area.”
Funding the zoo
While the Little Rock Zoo is a city department, it is not fully funded by tax dollars. More than half, about 56 percent, of the zoo’s budget is funded from earned revenue from membership, ticket, concession, ride token and gift shop sales, special events, education programs, catering, and other donations. The other 44 percent of the zoo’s budget comes from the city, including a 3/8-cent capital tax passed in 2011.
“It’s important to note that these funds cannot be used for operations or for basic facility maintenance,” she says. “This fund has produced an average of $600,000 to $700,000 in capital annually for the zoo and has been a huge help in building new facilities such as the new lion habitat and a new Colobus monkey and Serval cat habitat that will open this year.”
Altrui says the zoo relies on the Arkansas Zoological Foundation, a 501 c (3) non-profit organization, to supplement its budget with private donations in order to provide excellence in animal care and conservation.
“We’ve had to start relying on partner organizations more and be creative in how we conduct business,” she says. “That’s why we are looking at closing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the months of November, December, January and February. It’s important to us to make data-driven decisions, and when we looked at our front gate entry data it showed us that we were very slow on those two days in the winter months.
“We’ve also done research with some of our partner AZA zoos who also close one or two days a week in slow months and learned that they take advantage of these days to do regular maintenance that normally might disrupt the guest experience. They also do behind-the-scenes experiences for a limited number of guests and private catered events on those days. Closing two times a week in the winter months might actually provide some flexibility in our business model that we can take advantage of.”
Tightening the belt
At a May meeting of the city board of directors, Little Rock finance director Sara Lenehan presented two proposals aimed at amending the city’s 2019 budget. The first proposal she presented included nearly $5.3 million in cuts with the elimination of 48 positions across city departments. The second went deeper with close to $7.3 million cut from the budget, including the loss of 80 city jobs and the proposition of closing the zoo to the public on Tuesday and Wednesdays between Nov. 1 and March 1.
“Our city has financial challenges that must be addressed,” Scott said at the May board of directors meeting. “The truth of the matter is we cannot afford to support (each department) at existing levels without making reductions to critical services.”
Scott says the city needs money to fund public safety, quality of life and infrastructure upkeep. He says he wants to hire 100 new police officers in the next few years.
In June, the city’s directors approved $2.1 million in cuts for the remainder of the year. They eliminated 44 jobs as of June 28 and will close two of the four city-owned golf courses and reduce funding for the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Museum of Discovery.
“I know we made some tough decisions tonight, but we made the right decision,” Scott said at the June meeting. “This will protect and advance the future of our city.”
The mayor says the amendment is a “great step to right-size our city’s government, setting us on a stable financial foundation as we build for our future.”
“Our employees and our city amenities are extremely important,” Scott says, “and we’ll remain accountable, learn and (be) transparent with taxpayer dollars. I look forward to continued work with the City Board to improve our city and ensure it reaches its full potential.”
Investing in the future
While the current cuts are only a fraction of what was proposed, the 2020 budget and further expected cuts are looming.
“Our guests are telling us they want more,” Altrui says. “We are falling behind our counterparts at other nearby AZA zoos who are all investing in new facilities and dynamic new animal habitats. We have an aging facility with old Works Project Administration (WPA) structures that are in need of updating and repair. We have a plan for the redesign of the zoo that features things like a new African Savanna habitat for giraffes that features a deck where guests can feed them. This type of interactive experience is what the public wants. We have done several surveys over the past few years and giraffes are always at the top of the list, but a new giraffe habitat will cost more than $12 million to construct. Bears and otters are another guest favorite and our current bear habitat is old and also in need of a complete overhaul. We also have plans to renovate the old reptile and primate house into an ‘aquatorium’ for education programs complete with two large fish tanks and a touch tank for interaction.
“It would take us a minimum of $50 million to install all of the above attractions and we haven’t even mentioned upgrades to our elephant yard or what it would take to add other facilities, such as an updated veterinary hospital, a new South America area, and a new entry complex. Redoing the zoo will have a large price tag just like redoing Robinson Auditorium did and just like the renovation of the Arkansas Arts Center does, however, the payback from such an investment would be huge.”
With the right investment and additions, the zoo could be an economic boon for the city. For example, when the Laura P. Nichols Penguin Pointe habitat opened in 2011, the zoo saw a 20 percent increase in attendance.
The Multiplier Effect
Jim Dailey, director Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism and Little Rock’s mayor from 1993 to 2006, says the zoo is a statewide attraction and a Little Rock asset that has the potential to be an economic catalyst.
“Seventy-five percent of the folks that come to the zoo are from outside the city limits of Little Rock,” Dailey says. “And that doesn’t mean they may not be coming from North Little Rock or, something like that. But, as I recall, a substantial percentage of the visitors to the zoo come from outside the city.”
Those visitors have a positive economic impact not just on the city and zoo, but on other Little Rock businesses.
“With that number of people coming from outside of the city, I mean, the secondary effect on restaurants, attractions and places like that is pretty immense. Those people are spending money to not just get into the zoo, but they’re buying concessions and souvenirs. And I imagine a lot of them may end up spending the night in Little Rock when they come in to see the zoo and other attractions.
“It’s the multiplier effect,” he says. “The benefit of that is people that come to an attraction, whether it’s Crystal Bridges in Northwest Arkansas or Murphy Arts District in south Arkansas or the Clinton Presidential Library or zoo in Little Rock, spend time and a few dollars in addition to the attraction they’re actually attending.”
Dailey says the Parks & Tourism Department has a grant totaling nearly $63,000 which will be matched to help the zoo expand and update its amphitheater.
“This is the only accredited zoo in the state,” he says. “Long term, to keep up with the competition out there, the zoo not only needs to keep improving but also to make sure they’re taking care of business every day so that it will continue to exist.”
Quality of Life
In addition to being an economic resource, Dailey and Altrui say a strong zoo improves the region’s quality of life and is important for businesses and families looking to relocate to central Arkansas. People, especially Millennials, want to live and work in places with strong quality-of-life amenities like good parks and zoos.
With more than 500 animals, including some that are critically endangered or threatened by extinction, Alturi says the Little Rock Zoo does a great job but can do so much more.
“Our zoo is falling behind our counterparts in neighboring communities, and we are starting to see many of our visitors’ preference zoos in nearby states because they are making investments in new facilities and exciting new animal habitats,” she says. “The time is now for the Little Rock Zoo to finally reach its full potential.
“It will take a combination of public and private funds to secure the Little Rock Zoo’s future. Our zoo foundation has been investigating several options and should have some proposals to present to our mayor, city manager and the city board of directors soon. One consideration is a referendum for dedicated funding for the zoo.”
She pointed to recent zoo-funding measures that were passed in St. Louis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
“There’s just something about seeing an animal live and in person that cannot be replicated by an electronic device, TV or book,” Altrui says. “When you see animals in person it moves you. It creates a connection to the natural world. When you are connected to the natural world you are more likely to have empathy for all living things, humans included. We’re not just creating conservation advocates at the zoo, we’re building better citizens for our community.
“What we do know is that central Arkansas residents are hungry for a better zoo and for improved parks. It’s time we invested in quality-of-life initiatives. We think that if an exciting vision is created that the citizens want, they will support it.”