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).
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.