WATERTOWN — City officials say they are committed to keeping the doors open at the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park.

In a series of meetings with zoo officials on Friday, City Council members agreed to help the financially struggling zoo.

Larry Sorel, the zoo’s executive director, outlined the zoo’s financial picture and how the city could help it get through its struggles.

“I’m really encouraged coming out of our preliminary meeting,” he said. “Nobody wants to see the zoo closed.”

City coming to aid of struggling zoo

Signs point to a variety of destinations at the Thompson Park Zoo in Watertown. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

Council members said they want to help; it’s just determining how the city can best do that, Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero said.

Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. said Monday night that the city already is working on the plan that he hopes would also make the zoo a better facility.

“We’re all behind it and are working on the plan,” he said. “You’ll hear more about it moving forward.”

In the foreseeable future, zoo officials hope to get permission to use an annual $30,000 payment from the city to go toward operations expenses. Currently, the zoo receives funding to take care of capital improvements.

Councilwoman Ruggiero said council members learned the zoo doesn’t spend the $30,000 every year, so it might be more useful to go toward operations.

The city would need to change the wording of the agreement with the zoo to make that happen, she said. Council members hope to act on that measure in November or December.

The city has yearly agreements with the Thompson Conservancy, the zoo’s board of directors. The Thompson Conservancy hopes to change that arrangement to every five years because it would make it easier to get state funding, Mr. Sorel said.

The city needs to look at the issue internally before zoo officials hear back from Watertown officials.

Council members also would consider a bigger commitment when they deliberate next year’s budget in the spring, Councilwoman Ruggiero said.

They would look at contributing a range between $100,000 and $120,000 in funding to keep the zoo going, she said.

“We think that is appropriate for this size of a facility and this size of a city and what we’re trying to do,” Mr. Sorel said.

That funding level would be comparable to what zoos in Utica and Buffalo receive in government funding, which includes funds from the city, state and county, he said.

As is the case with the Thompson Park zoo, the Utica and Buffalo zoos are operated by nonprofit organizations. Many zoos, otherwise, are owned by municipalities.

City coming to aid of struggling zoo

The Thompson Park Zoo sign is illuminated by the setting sun on Monday afternoon in Watertown. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

The zoo board has put together a five-year strategic plan that includes ideas on new programs and projects and ways it can grow.

To discuss the situation, zoo officials met with two council members at a time on Friday.

Three weeks ago, the zoo’s financial issues came to light. For the first time, the zoo’s $50,000 credit line that it relies on to pay for salaries and animal expenses during the winter maxed out.

Calling the city its partner, the arrangement that the zoo and the municipality made 30 years ago no longer works in today’s economy, Mr. Sorel has said.

The zoo board operates the facility, while the city owns the buildings and property.

The zoo currently has an annual operating budget of $750,000 and a staff of 10 employees. The zoo attracted about 37,000 people through the gates this year, slightly higher than in 2018.

Two years ago, the zoo asked for $30,000 in additional funding from the city when zoo officials said the facility was $135,000 in debt and lost money eight out of the last 10 years.

By the Numbers

$30,000 immediate funding request from the city

$100,000 to $120,000 in governmental funding

$750,000 annual budget

10 employees

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(1) comment


Why doesn't the city just take over the zoo and be done with it?

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