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Detroit Zoo faces uncertain future as bankruptcy weighs on city

Homer, a two-toed sloth, is a resident of the Detroit Zoo, which is under pressure to make expensive additions to draw more visitors, even as support from the insolvent city may disappear. Illustrates DETROIT-ZOO (category a) by Tim Jones (c) 2013, Bloomberg News. Moved: Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 (MUST CREDIT: Mark M. Gaskill/Detroit Zoological Society).

Homer, a two-toed sloth, is a resident of the Detroit Zoo, which is under pressure to make expensive additions to draw more visitors, even as support from the insolvent city may disappear. Illustrates DETROIT-ZOO (category a) by Tim Jones (c) 2013, Bloomberg News. Moved: Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 (MUST CREDIT: Mark M. Gaskill/Detroit Zoological Society).

Bubbles the chimp and Boo the grizzly are marquee attractions at the Detroit Zoo, furry cultural assets and financial liabilities in a municipal bankruptcy where still life is worth more than animal life.

As appraisers value city-owned Picassos and Van Goghs in the Detroit Institute of Arts, the zoo is under pressure to make expensive additions to draw more visitors, even as support from the insolvent city may disappear. And the 3,300 animals in Michigan’s biggest paid tourist attraction are not as valuable in an $18 billion bankruptcy as their fame suggests.

“You never want collateral that has to eat or that you have to shovel after,” said Bill Brandt, president and chief executive of Development Specialists Inc., a business consulting firm.

The challenge facing the Detroit Zoo, which is operated by a nonprofit that foots most of its $29.2 million annual operating costs, mirrors that of many municipal menageries: finding money to build attractions as cities face demands for other services.

While the animals appear to be off the auction block – there are no plans to appraise or sell them, said Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr – the city’s insolvency has cast uncertainty over the 85-year-old facility owned by the city and operated by the nonprofit Detroit Zoological Society.

“This is uncharted territory, obviously for this community and others,” Ron Kagan, the zoo’s director, said in an interview. “It makes it tough to do very big and bold things when there is some degree of uncertainty.”

The zoo has already begun work on a 24,000-square-foot penguin preservation center to house the current population. Kagan called it “the biggest project in our history,” intended to add to last year’s attendance of 1.2 million people.

Detroit’s 125-acre zoo has endured as the erstwhile auto powerhouse declined. The city, which filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history July 18, has almost 150,000 vacant parcels and 700,000 people across 139 square miles after losing more than half its population since the 1950s. Its financial obligations have prompted an assessment of assets, which include the art museum and its masterworks, 983-acre Belle Isle park, which is to be leased to the state, and the water and sewerage plant.

The possibility of losing the city’s contribution has meaning beyond money, Kagan said.

“If people are worried about something fundamentally changing about the zoo, does that hurt our fundraising long term?”

In the meantime, costs continue: Homer the two-toed sloth has to eat his leaves and twigs.

" all have in common" I would say it is a loss in the job base. When the big companies shift jobs outside an area the middle class people start leaving. Car production is a prime example. In Buffalo it is seen as the St. Laurence Seaway project, that made it cheaper to ship products not using the canal so the mills shut down. Cincinnati's population has declined more than 35 percent since 1950. The land area did not change so with less people it costs more per person to run the city. In Milwaukee, there has been a 40 percent decline in manufacturing jobs since 1970 when Schlitz, Pabst and American Motors reigned - no jobs and the middle class people move away to get better jobs. So in common we have corporate greed in that the shift has been from making a “fair” return on investment and employing workers to a maximize profit for the few shareholders (mostly the rich) attitude. Keep getting rid of the jobs and the middle class shrinks and the poor become a higher percentage of the population. If the plan was to give more handouts attracting poor people then the population should be growing - for all those free handouts.

What do the top ten cities (over 250,000) with the highest poverty rate all have in common? Detroit, MI (1st on the poverty rate list) hasn't elected a Republican mayor since 1961. Buffalo, NY (2nd) hasn't elected a Republican mayor since 1954. Cincinnati , OH (3rd) hasn't elected a Republican mayor since 1984. Cleveland , OH (4th) hasn't elected a Republican mayor since 1989. Miami, FL (5th) has never had a Republican mayor. St. Louis , MO (6th) hasn't elected a Republican mayor since 1949. El Paso , TX (7th) has never had a Republican mayor. Milwaukee , WI (8th) hasn't elected a Republican mayor since 1908. Philadelphia , PA (9th) hasn't elected a Republican mayor since 1952. Newark , NJ (10th) hasn't elected a Republican mayor since 1907. The city of Milwaukee has been run by liberals and progressives without interruption for more than 100 years. What is the consequence of this progressive rule? Milwaukee’s median household income is forty percent below the rest of the country. The black unemployment rate is 27%, three times the national average for everyone. Milwaukee’s population is majority black and Hispanic, and 30% of it lives below the poverty line. A third of Milwaukee’s public school children drop out before they graduate; those who do are barely literate. That’s what progressive policies achieve.

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