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Thompson Park Zoo director Larry Sorel stands near the zoo sign in August 2018. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Faced with a fiscal crisis, the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park officials will again be asking the city for financial help.

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Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. confirmed that the zoo has talked to City Manager Rick Finn about the situation and City Council members have agreed to meet with executive director Larry Sorel to find out more.

The mayor said he doesn’t know the specifics of the situation but it has reached a crucial point for the zoo.

“They are at a crossroads and are trying to put together a plan so they can survive,” he said.

Mr. Sorel played down that scenario, but went on to say that he hopes to get to the point that zoo officials do not need to go back to the city every couple of years asking for help.

“We want to make plans for the long term, and that’s what we want talk to the city about,” he said.

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

The zoo board — called the Thompson Park Conservancy — operates the facility, while the city owns the buildings and property.

The city provides $30,000 annually in building reimbursements, in addition to in-kind services for repairs, engineering, design work and other support. The zoo also receives funding from Jefferson County and the state.

The zoo currently has an annual operating budget of $750,000, but Mr. Sorel said it should be $1.1 million, with $200,000 coming from governmental sources.

“We’re not near that,” he said, adding municipalities typically provide funding about 20 percent of their operating budgets.

He mentioned that the Utica and Buffalo zoos are operated by nonprofit entities but receive that kind of financial support from their communities.

“We just don’t want to solve today’s issues but create a relationship and partnership, so we’re not doing this two years from now or five years from now,” he said. “We just don’t want to survive but we want to thrive.”

Council members are ready to listen, Mayor Butler said. They plan to meet individually with Mr. Sorel to talk about the situation and how the city can help, the mayor said.

Saying the city just learned about the situation about 10 days ago, City Manager Rick Finn said Thursday that Mr. Sorel told him that “they needed a little help” but had not provided specifics about the situation or what the zoo needs.

“It’s important to the city and to listen what they have to say,” Mr. Finn said.

Mr. Sorel, who retired from the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester to come to Watertown about 18 months ago, has agreed to provide information about the zoo’s financial picture.

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

The zoo attracted about 37,000 people through the gates this year, slightly higher than in 2018, he said. With the population around 115,000 for Jefferson County, attendance should be between 60,000 and 70,000 people, Mr. Sorel said.

The zoo also is short staffed, employing 10 people and needing seven more to operate at full capacity, he said.

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.

On Wednesday, mayoral candidate Jeffrey M. Smith said he was meeting later in the day with Mr. Sorel about what was going on and to see how the city could help.

He said that the zoo uses a line of credit from a local bank to get through winter months after it closes for the season.

The money goes for salaries and care for the animals during the winter. Mr. Sorel confirmed that the line of credit is nearly maxed out.

On Wednesday, Mr. Smith told the Watertown Daily Times that he didn’t understand how the city is proceeding with a $3.1 million pool at Thompson Park when the zoo is “just a few hundred yards away” and needs help.

“The city should take a more active role” in the zoo, he said, “so it can continue to be an asset of the city.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(1) comment

Farmer Liz

For us to take our 3 kids to the zoo would cost $60. The zoo is no longer affordable for most families...

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