GERING — The proposed bear habitat at Riverside Discovery Center made a large step forward thanks to $300,000 in loan funding from the USDA and the City of Gering.
The USDA Rural Economic Development Loan/Grant Program approved the application in March for $240,000 with Gering extending a 20% $60,000 match. The no-interest loan is for a 10-year period.
Anthony Mason, executive director of the Riverside Discovery Center, said the loan term gives them ample time for repayment. The loan payments will go back to Gering to be used for other projects by nonprofit organizations.
“This brings us very close to our final goal to be able to start construction on the bear exhibit,” Mason said. “Hopefully, we can get these orphaned bear brothers the home they deserve very soon.”
The two grizzlies were orphaned as cubs in 2017 after their mother had been illegally killed by a hunter in Wyoming. The pair has been residents of the Riverside Zoo since late that year.
“Wildlife services determined the cubs wouldn’t survive in the wild,” Mason said. “They were starting to interact with people and if we weren’t able to take them in, they probably would have been euthanized.”
The new habitat, exclusively for the two bear brothers, will be located in the space where the zebra are now. Mason said they chose that location because it’s central in the zoo and provides enough space for the bears.
“Once completed, it will be one of the largest grizzly bear exhibits in the entire country,” Mason said. “It will include the world’s only climbing water tower structure that creates a stream in the exhibit for the bears to play in and climb on.”
Mason said that with the USDA loan, they’ll have about $40,000 to $50,000 left before construction can begin. He hopes it will be soon, as the bears are now just over 2 years old and will continue to grow until they’re 5 or 6.
During their regular Monday meeting, members of the Gering City Council unanimously approved the loan application.
“We’re excited to be partners in this project,” said Gering Mayor Tony Kaufman. “We’re always looking for ways to partner within our community and outside our community. We’ve done activities like this in the past with a similar loan for Legacy of the Plains Museum. It’s a great way to reinvest in the community.”
Mason said that in addition to support from Gering and Scottsbluff, the support of the local business community is important for both the bear exhibit and the zoo’s overall operation.
“We have a large pool of businesses in Scottsbluff, Gering and surrounding communities that are really supportive of the zoo and this project,” Mason said. “The City of Scottsbluff has also been a big supporter for decades. We appreciate all the support we receive from everyone so we can keep the zoo here for the community into the future.”