Editor's note: This is the second in an occasional series of stories looking at the projects that would benefit from the increase in local sales tax revenue if voters approved a .30 cent increase in November.

Plans to update the flamingo and primate exhibits and an animal health facility at Lee Richardson Zoo not only are being made for the animals' sake, but zoo staff's as well.

The projects didn't just show up on the zoo's radar, either. Zoo officials have been recommending the improvements for some time, and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums agrees with the zoo's assessment.

“These three projects we’ve been talking about have been noted on our recent (AZA) inspection. We noted them, too. They were already on (capital improvement project lists) and all that, so we were working toward it,” Zoo Director Kristi Newland said in a recent interview. “They (AZA) say they’re all small and outmoded just like we do. We are AZA accredited… We meet the highest standards.”

Fundraising has traditionally been the zoo’s way to secure money for such projects, but that can take time and is not always easy.

But breaking ground for these projects could come to fruition sooner than expected, if voters pass a proposed county-wide sales tax increase in November.

Garden City Commissioner Roy Cessna said during Wednesday’s city town hall meeting that the three projects at the zoo would help enhance “a crown jewel” of Garden City.

“Not only for the tourist aspect in our community, but tourists that come into our community to visit our zoo,” he said.

Earlier this summer, a series of city projects were introduced that could be funded by a countywide sales tax hike of .3 percent — or.30 cents. The sales-tax proposal, the product of an interlocal agreement between the City of Garden City and Finney County. The measure will be on a countywide ballot on Nov. 7.

In addition to the zoo projects, other projects local officials have targeted for financing from the sales tax revenue include: urbanized improvements to a section of Jennie Barker Road approximate to the intersection at Kansas Highway 156; construction, operation and maintenance of a third fire station and related public safety facilities to be located on the east side of town; and the construction and operation of an 11,068-square-foot indoor shooting range intended for use by local law enforcement and the public.


Flamingos will flock

The current exhibit for the Chilean flamingos was built in 1987 and includes a large, open exhibit area with a pond and a night house, but both are deteriorating.

“The current one is small, and it’s brick and mortar,” Newland said of the existing night house, noting that flamingos like to be wet, so the current building is sprayed down regularly. “The bricks pop off. We’ve had painters, we’ve had brick layers, we’ve had everybody come and deal with it, and it still keeps happening.”

The current night house also has a drop ceiling, which zoo staff has had issues with, including panels falling. So zoo staff has re-hung and made adjustments for animal and staff safety. There also isn't a wading area for the birds in the current night house.

The pond in the exhibit leaks, and zoo staff have to paint it every year to seal it, Newland said.

If the proposed sales tax increase is passed, a new flamingo exhibit would be built adjacent to the east and northeast shore of the zoo’s main duck pond. Modifications would be made, including a zero to 3-foot deep wading area for the flamingos, as well as the addition of a recirculating pump and skimmer filtration system. There also would be a viewing deck for zoo guests to view the bright pink birds in a more natural habitat.

A bigger night house would be added and include an indoor wading area for the birds, as well as a winter viewing area.

“In the winter time, the birds get cracks in their feet, so the keepers spend extra time in the winter dealing with whoever has cracks,” Newland said. “That should reduce whenever we have a new facility.”

Newland said the current facility is suitable for the 10 flamingos that reside at the zoo, but a new facility would provide room for more or even breeding.

“Flamingos have this makeup where they need 19 birds in a flock to breed. They comfort in numbers, so right now we don’t have a hope of that,” she said. “But in the future, if we get more birds, we could then be a breeding facility.”

Total cost to update the flamingo exhibit would be about $400,000.


Monkeying around

Originally built in 1982, the existing primate facility houses two red-bellied spider monkeys and two red-ruffed lemurs. The small, oblique-shaped habitat located next to the flamingos contains climbing space for the animals, with sleeping quarters that separate the two species.

“It also is brick and mortar,” Newland said. “Based on living quarters, we’re restricted as to how many animals we can have. Animals don’t always get along, so you have to have some extra space. That’s especially with the spider monkeys. The outside quarters are pretty limiting. Most of those animals like to be in the tree tops, and we can’t get them up there.”

A new facility would include a larger night house and larger, more realistic outdoor areas, as well as a primate-inspired playground for children.

“Once we have the new facility, it will be built for up to six on each side, so we can either get more of the same species or compatible species, or stay below six and get to breed,” Newland said. “It will also be a benefit to the animals and the guests because it will be a year-round habitat.”

Both the lemurs and spider monkeys are tropical species, so they enjoy warmer temperatures, Newland said.

“The new facility will have an outdoor area where people can see, but it’s temperature controlled,” she said. “On those days where guests come out bundled up in their coats and stop by the habitat we have now, those animals are inside, or you might see Daisy (one of the spider monkeys) peek out.”

The new facility won’t be tree-top high, but will give the animals more height and natural surroundings than their current exhibit, as well as more sun.

The construction of the new primate facility would expand around the current flamingo exhibit, so the birds would not have to be moved if or when the primate exhibit is built.

“When we were doing our planning on this, it was like, ‘Which one is going to get built first?’” Newland said. “It (flamingo exhibit) could still be here. We didn’t handcuff ourselves with that.”

The estimated price tag on a new primate exhibit is $1.45 million, and nearly a third of the cost already has been collected thanks to the fundraising efforts of the Friends of Lee Richardson zoo, according to Cessna.


Animal health expansion

The zoo’s current animal health facility is on the south side of the zoo and is small, Newland said.

The zoo wants to expand and remodel the existing facility that serves as the clinic, animals operations and quarantine facility.

“We do a lot of our quarantine in another building. We can only do quarantine in the other building if there aren’t other animals in there,” Newland said. “If an animal is sick, it mostly gets treated on site, and a lot of time you wouldn’t want to move it because you don’t want to add that stress, but we really don’t have a whole lot of options when an animal is sick — when it comes to procedures. We do a number of them in night houses because they’re just too big.”

Newland said zoo staff take some animals to the current health facility, though the largest animal that can utilize it is a jaguar, so expanding the facility would allow staff to bring larger animals to a bigger facility and have room, the proper tables and supports in a more sterile environment.

“We will actually be expanding vet time. We won’t switch to a full-time vet, but we will add more vet time," she said. "Medical care for humans has changed a lot. Vet care changes also."

Estimated cost for the the expansion is $490,000.

Cessna said the current animal health facility was built in 1980.

“Not only would it help our animals, but it will also help vets and technicians as they work on our animals,” he said, adding that a new facility would provide quarantine space for incoming animals, as well as for the current animals that need to be quarantined for various issues.

Another project that originally was included among those that could be funded through the proposed sales tax was a Seventh Street vehicle entrance to the zoo that would replace the current one, near the rhino exhibit, though that project has since been removed.

Newland said the Seventh Street entrance is still on the zoo’s master plan, though it wasn’t considered as high of a priority as the animal exhibits and health facility updates.


Tax increase background

During Wednesday's town hall meeting, Keith Collins, who is running for a City Commission seat in November, asked how each project would be prioritized.

City Manager Matt Allen said that has been a frequently asked question.

Allen said the shooting range, Jennie Barker Road and zoo projects likely would happen in the first five years of the tax increase and would be “pay-as-you-go.”

“The majority of the sale tax happens in the first five years, with the only remaining piece being the big sticker item, the third fire station,” Allen said, adding that a bond issue also would be needed to help fund the fire station project, which has an estimated cost of $6.25 million.

If passed by voters, the sales tax hike would take effect April 1, 2018, and sunset after 15 years. The tax increase would yield about $2.15 million annually.

All together, the projects will cost — without operating cost expenses included — about $11.1 million, based on a tally of expenses presented by city and county officials.

Information on the sales tax ballot issue is available on the city’s website, www.garden-city.org, and on Finney County’s website, www.finneycounty.org.


Looking ahead

Newland said zoo staff has adapted procedures to do the best they can with what they have, so any of the three projects would be a benefit to the zoo.

“The clinic, in its way, can benefit a number of species. Those habitats are more focused,” she said. “We’ve adapted to do the best we can with what we have, so to prioritize one over the other is really hard.”

Newland said she would like to see each of the projects completed as soon as they can be.

Even if the tax increase were to pass, FOLRZ will continue its fundraising efforts.

“Friends (FOLRZ) are still currently fundraising for primates because the vote hasn’t happened. We’re not taking it for granted, and the money they have raised will go toward the primate habitat. It will just combine with what comes from the sales tax if it is approved for that exhibit,” Newland said.

One of the zoo’s fundraisers, "A Wild Affair," is set to for 6 p.m. Saturday. The event is the zoo’s largest fundraiser of the year and will have an “Evening in Rio” theme, as well as live music from Mike Bennish and Buckner Creek Band. There also will be appearances by the zoo’s animal ambassadors.

The event also will feature adult beverages, food sampling from various restaurants from around the region, and both silent and live auctions.

The zoo will be closed during regular zoo hours on Saturday to prepare for the festivities, but doors open at 6 p.m. at the Finnup Center for Conservation Education, located at 312 Finnup Drive.

Food will be served until 8 p.m. Guests must be 21 or older to enter.

Tickets are all inclusive and are $40 per person or $50 each after Labor Day. All tickets must be purchased in advance and will not be available at the door. Tickets can be purchased at the zoo, Blue Fox Boutique, Patrick Dugan’s Coffee House, Ward’s Garden Center or online at www.folrz.org. 

Both Newland and Cessna encourage those who are not registered to vote to go out and do so to express their opinion and be involved in the community.

Voter registration deadline is Oct. 17.

“The quality of the zoo is a reflection of the community, and over the years, the community has said they want a quality zoo,” Newland said.

Contact Josh Harbour at jharbour@gctelegram.com