Scottsbluff City Council suggests new budget for zoo support

Members of the Scottsbluff City Council spent much of Monday's meeting discussing the level of support they can gve to the Riverside Discovery Center Zoo once the current contract expires next year. A tentative number of $300,000 per year for the next five years was proposed for both groups to continue discussions on a new contract.

After more than an hour of discussion, Scottsbluff council members and staff of the Riverside Discovery Center Zoo agreed to start negotiating at $300,000 per year for a five-year agreement in support of zoo operations.

For the past 10 years, the city has supported the zoo at $350,000 per year, which council members said isn’t sustainable.

Council members Nathan Green and Jeanne McKerrigan have been representing the city in small group discussions with zoo staff.

At Monday’s council meeting, member Terry Schaub said the zoo is beneficial to the community through the tax dollars it brings from visitation by the public.

“I think it would be bad business to not support the zoo in some way, shape or form,” he said. “We’ve been discussing this for several months, so we need to come together and give the staff some direction and move these negotiations forward.”

Zoo Director Anthony Mason said in the past they’ve been pursuing support from other communities as well as foundations. But most are reluctant to commit until Scottsbluff makes a firm commitment as to support.

“While your support of $350,000 a year has remained stable over the last 10 years, our costs continue to rise even while we’re trying to cut things like food and labor,” Mason told council members. “When the city was operating the zoo, they were spending from $750,000 to a million dollars a year.

Mason said the zoo’s operating costs are still at the $750,000 a year mark, so the zoo has been raising the additional funding for the past 10 years.

One proposed number the city threw out for support was set at $275,000 a year. Katie Gompert, a member of the zoo’s marketing team, said a $75,000 reduction was too drastic for them to take on.

“I don’t believe the Riverside Discovery Center will ever be self-sufficient,” Gompert said. “I don’t see how we can make that number work and continue operations over time.”

Nathan Green said the financials discussed by the group make more sense now. However, he was worried that a new long-term contract would eventually end up at the point where the city couldn’t afford it.

Green suggested a shorter term contract, but Mason said that perceived instability could possibly jeopardize its accreditation through the American Zoological Association. Plus he has to deal with public perception where people only see the headlines and assume the zoo is closing.

“Any long-term damage just makes it harder to attract new business and tourism,” Mason said. “That perception isn’t all in the numbers. A lot of it is psychological.”

After more discussion, Mayor Ray Gonzales proposed the city agree to support the zoo at a level of $300,000 per year for the next five years.

No vote was taken, but the number represents a new starting point from which both groups can continue discussions.

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Jerry Purvis is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9046 or emailed at jpurvis@starherald.com.

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