Future of Louisville Zoo discussed at budget hearing

Louisville Zoo asks city for increased funding during budget shortfall

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Discussions surrounding the $35 million Louisville budget shortfall continue as council members sort through Mayor Greg Fischer’s budget proposal before they vote next month.

Thursday night, the Louisville Zoo was front and center before council members.

“Last year Louisville experienced over 68 inches of rain,” Louisville Zoo Director John Walczak told council members.

The rainy weather impacted the number of people who visited the zoo, too.

“We were down 100,000 guests last year, which is a big number,” he added.

As of now, Walczak said attendance is down a little bit this fiscal year, too.

“Well I think the zoo has been running over budget in terms of budget from the city for the last couple of years," Councilman Bill Hollander (D-District 9) said. "It’s been described as a climate issue with a lot of rain, which really affects attendance at the zoo. But I think there’s a plan to increase revenue, increase attendance.”

Another problem for the zoo was the massive sinkhole in March. It shut down the zoo for 10 days and the train is still out of commission.

“The first train tunnel is within 25-30 feet away from the edge [of the sinkhole], so the train is not operating this spring," Walczak said. "That’s 10 days closed in March, and the train revenue are two things we’re suffering this fiscal year, which is one of the reasons why we’re going to have trouble making projections.”

This photo of the Louisville Zoo sinkhole on March 11, shows a slightly shifted hole, compared to photos and video from the initial opening in the ground on March 6.
This photo of the Louisville Zoo sinkhole on March 11, shows a slightly shifted hole, compared to photos and video from the initial opening in the ground on March 6. (Source: WAVE 3 News)

He said next week they will have two mining engineers and a civil engineer walk through the sinkhole area for an update.

The zoo is asking for $5.2 million next budget, which is more money than last year.

Hollander asked Walczak during the meeting Thursday if the zoo could operate within that budget for fiscal year 20 without going over, and Walczak assured the council members he believed they could.

A portion of the discussion Thursday was about the mayor’s proposal for the zoo to enter into a public-private partnership to help manage or operate the zoo.

“Over 70 percent of the zoos are public-private partnerships and there’s certainly advantages to both being government and [public private partnerships],” Walczak said. “Our priorities are to take care of the animals and have a wonderful, safe asset for the community, so there’s going to be a multitude of issues that we’ll look at to make sure the zoo continues to have great management into the future.”

He added there are several questions that still need to be answered, like how the pension obligation would affect it.

“Longer-term, I think we have to look at whether a public-private partnership for the zoo makes sense,” Hollander said. “But that’s really a decision that will be made next year. For this year, we’re just passing the budget and trying to get to a situation where they can live within a balanced budget next year.”

Walczak said they’re working to increase revenue too, trying something new called dynamic pricing, where they charge more during prime attendance times. Walczak hopes to get the train reopened and partner on pass options with Kentucky Kingdom to increase revenue.

Thursday night, council members threw out different ideas to raise revenue, like adding more summer camps and pushing for more people to rent out the zoo after hours.

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