Plans for Zoo tax money include safari drives, ropes courses at Spanish Lake facility | St. Louis Public Radio

Plans for Zoo tax money include safari drives, ropes courses at Spanish Lake facility

Oct 25, 2018

When St. Louis Zoo president and CEO Jeffrey Bonner sketches out his plans for a proposed zoo annex in Spanish Lake, he evokes an idyllic scene based on an experience he had at a Florida zoo.

“If you can imagine sitting in a kayak and looking up maybe two or three feet up to the [river] bank,” he said in a recent interview, “and then looking up beyond that and seeing a 14-foot tall giraffe — it was amazing.”

The Zoo could make such activities possible if St. Louis County voters approve a ballot question in November, increasing the sales tax by one-eighth of a cent. The tax would add about an extra 12 cents to a $100 purchase.

The St. Louis Zoo Association, a private group that raises money for the Forest Park institution, spent $7.2 million this year for a 425-acre plot of land near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, in north St. Louis County.

That would become the site of a breeding facility for the Zoo ,plus a publicly accessible attraction that would offer wildlife experiences similar to the one Bonner had in that kayak.

Bonner said safari drives, ropes courses, camping and other outdoor activities are all on the table. If the sales tax increase is approved, Zoo officials will spend at least a year planning the specific features based in part on community feedback.

The breeding facility, which would be home to animals destined for the Zoo’s main campus in Forest Park, could open in three years, he said. The outdoor attractions would be added after that. The facility is expected to cost more than $80 million.

Debating the pros, cons of a sales tax increase to fund St. Louis Zoo's new center

The Zoo in Forest Park is funded by property taxes assessed in St. Louis and St. Louis County. The proposed sales tax increase is expected to raise $20 million annually, roughly matching the more than $20 million in property taxes annually earmarked for the Zoo.

Some of the new funds would also go toward renovations to the Zoo, which was built in 1904. Admission to the Zoo is free for all. There would likely be an admission charge at the Spanish Lake facility.

Supporters of the sales tax increase required approval from both the state Legislature and the St. Louis County Council before placing the question on the ballot. The Council moved the question forward this year. The bill in the legislature passed in 2017 with bipartisan support, though earlier versions spread the sales tax among St. Louis, St. Charles, Franklin and Jefferson counties.

State Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, sponsor of the Senate version, said at the time that she removed the other counties in order to get support from more legislators.

State Rep. Marsha Haefner, a Republican from Oakville who sponsored the House version, said the version targeting only St. Louis County was “a simpler way to get this done.”

Opponents point to this narrowing of scope, arguing that the burden for funding the new construction should be spread more widely.

Ben Uchitelle, former mayor of Clayton and former chair of the Zoo Museum District’s board of directors, said it makes more sense to raise money through an admission fee at the Forest Park Zoo and to solicit private donations.

He also objected to the open-ended nature of the proposed revenue stream, noting that it has no sunset clause and that the Zoo leadership would be able to allocate the money however it chooses and without oversight from the Zoo Museum District.

“It needs more funds,” Uchitelle said of the Zoo, “but there’s several better ways to raise those funds.”

Uchitelle said he supports the Zoo leadership’s goals.

“I’m sympathetic to the Zoo having a breeding program, that makes good sense. And there are ways to pay for it.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin