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Digging up new funds called top zoo priority

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Public officials who've been dueling over the future of Hogle Zoo just found one thing they agree on: The animals need more money, possibly from a tax on people.

"We're very much aligned on the need to create a funding mechanism" to expand the zoo, either at its current Sunnyside Drive spot or at some unidentified new location, Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson said Friday.

Utah Senate President Al Mansell, R-Sandy, has scuffled with Anderson over the question of moving the zoo. He has advocated moving from the old site at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, while the mayor has called the zoo a jewel that must not be removed from his city's "cultural necklace."

But the two men seemed to set aside their differences. Mansell said simply, "We need to find funding sources" to add to the Zoo, Arts and Parks (ZAP) tax and the millions in state support already poured into Hogle, which is Utah's fifth-largest draw of paying visitors.

Anderson was specific about what such a revenue source could be: He suggested a 1-percent restaurant tax, "a minimal amount" for patrons. In Salt Lake County, such a tax would double the current rate, which already is at 1 percent.

Both the mayor and Mansell said at first that locating a funding source is step one, while relocating the zoo is step two. But later Mansell said that if a tax increase is proposed, the zoo's future address will have been hammered out.

"By the time we get to that point," he said, "we'll know what (the preferred location) is," he said.

The current 40-acre site is inadequate and zoo officials have had to turn away school groups on crowded days, Mansell added. "I've been told by people who know more about zoos than I do . . . that we need an 80-acre zoo" to be a world-class attraction. Situated between steep hillsides, homes and Rotary Glen Park, Hogle Zoo can't double its size. If it stays there, considerable changes would have to be made. "I don't know if we can remodel it sufficiently, to make room for more animals and more people," Mansell said.

Recently the zoo has made some expensive improvements to its people- and vehicle-oriented areas. In May, a $5.8 million entry plaza and reconfigured parking lot were finished. Apparently the ZAP tax helped pay for that. Mansell said the $1.8 million in annual support from Salt Lake County taxpayers is only enough to fund "ongoing maintenance," and nowhere near the $80 million that may be needed to transform the zoo — at its current site or elsewhere.

It's time to hit up governments and private funders beyond Salt Lake County, Mansell said. "We're going to talk to other counties to see if they want to take part" via a bond issue or increased taxation. Or if one county steps up to pay for improvements at the zoo, "there could be a difference in the entry fee" for residents of that county.

If the zoo's 800 creatures and 230 human employees vacate, the Hogle land will revert to the family that donated it seven decades ago. Jim Hogle, chairman of the zoo's board of trustees, said he has yet to discuss any new use for the property. "We're going on the assumption that this is where it'll be," he said.

But "the infrastructure is wearing out," Hogle added.

An infusion of money for the zoo will probably be considered by the Salt Lake County Council, other counties and by state legislators, Mansell said. "If the zoo doesn't get redone, it'll get more inadequate, becoming what's called a 'pocket zoo.' "

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com