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Big bite: Zoo says it's time to pounce

Published May 31, 2007 1:04 am

Officials think taxpayers will back $65M request
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

No sense waiting for a good time for Hogle Zoo to pitch its $65 million tax request to voters. It never would come.

But the zoo's executive director, Craig Dinsmore, believes he can coax Salt Lake County taxpayers to cough up millions over the next eight years by promising an expansive African savanna to house antelope, rhinoceroses and a pride of lions.

If that doesn't do it, maybe an Arctic play land with up to five polar bears, seals and snow owls would do the job.

"Voters have demonstrated that if the reason is right, they will give their support," he said. "We think the reason is right."

But Hogle Zoo could face a tough sell. Not even a year has passed since voters endorsed a $65 million Zoo, Arts and Parks bond for more skate parks, swimming pools and recreation centers. On the same ballot, they approved $48 million for parks and open space and a quarter-cent sales tax increase for rail and road projects.

Now, the county faces a possible split in the Granite and Jordan school districts, which could cost millions more for new schools.

So why push for a vote in November? Dinsmore smiled and responded simply, "When is a good time to go to the taxpayers and ask for more?"

The Hogle Zoo has proposed a massive makeover of its 42-acre park on Salt Lake City's east bench. Like the recently completed Asian Highlands exhibit, the zoo wants to rid itself of concrete cages and create more spacious natural exhibits with fewer animals.

"The best way to understand what we will do," Dinsmore said, "is to look at what we've already done."

The zoo's wish list - priced at $85 million with $20 million to come from private donations - would complete Hogle's updated master plan. It would include a new animal hospital, a gorilla forest and an improved penguin play space.

With a red wagon in tow, Richard Messenger wheeled his grandchildren through the zoo Wednesday.

He didn't cringe at the thought of a tax increase. Instead, he responded matter-of-factly that it would be money well spent.

"Anytime we can find a way to educate our children more thoroughly," he said, "it is better for the total community."

In downtown Salt Lake City, the tax found less traction in Russ Coburn. The father of two said his family doesn't frequent the zoo. So why pay for it?

"I don't want to see my taxes raised for something I don't utilize today," he said. "I'm fine - when I do go - with the current content they have."

Hogle Zoo hasn't yet tabulated the household-by-household impact of the bond. Dinsmore characterized it as a "minimal" property-tax boost Wednesday, saying the zoo would seek the money in phases.

The park would seek $2 million the first year, $15 million the next year and $22 million the third year. By 2015, the zoo would have expended all the money, according to a Hogle timeline.

Dinsmore defended the sum, saying the zoo - Utah's fifth-busiest attraction - draws enormous foot traffic. The zoo reported nearly 850,000 visitors, mostly from Salt Lake County, and 60,000 schoolchildren last year.

Hogle presented its plans publicly to the Salt Lake County Council last week. The request now goes before the county's Debt Review Committee, which has not set a hearing.

"We have a good zoo," Dinsmore said. "We want to become a great zoo. Let's give the voters of Salt Lake County a chance to make a decision on how they feel about having a great zoo."





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