Communities similar in size, and smaller, to our own Scottsbluff/Gering/Terrytown often hear from our youth, “There’s nothing to do here.” Many also struggle to attract or create places that can help the community as a whole by bringing in outsiders to visit for a day or two.

We are lucky here in western Nebraska to be blessed with many things for us and outsiders to take part in throughout the year. From Scotts Bluff National Monument, to the Pathways, to great golf courses, we are definitely not short on fun things to do.

But this past week, I had the privilege of touring what I feel is a true gem in our own backyard. The Riverside Discovery Center is beyond impressive. I’ve passed by a few times before but always thought to myself, “A zoo? Here in Scottsbluff? How good could it be?" So, my wife and I had not visited yet.

That opinion changed very fast last Tuesday morning during my tour with both Zoo Director Anthony Mason and Board Member Maren Chaloupka. Behind the walls that encase the Riverside Discovery Center is a world that is not only for kids, but where adults can be taken back to their youth, and enjoy a wide variety of animals amongst a peaceful setting.

Anthony’s knowledge of animals and foresight for growing the zoo is on another level in itself. I listened intently as he shared stories and information on each animal as we walked through the pathways throughout the zoo. Lions, tigers and bears, oh my!!! Yep, they were all there.

But my favorites had to be Quillow the baby porcupine that we were able to enter the enclosure with. And Fran, the chimpanzee who caught my eye, raised her hand up to the glass as if asking me to do the same. Yes, I did.

Although visitors to the zoo continue to rise each year, the rumors that tend to come with news stories about funding, the City of Scottsbluff and the future of the Discovery Center, tend to send the message that the zoo is closing. Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Does declining city funding negatively affect the zoo? Absolutely. But as with any other business, you adapt. And that is what Mason and his team do regularly. But it does create limits on what the operation can do and forecast to do over the coming years.

It’s my opinion that some elected officials feel a local zoo is nothing more than a financial drain. That closed-minded approach doesn’t take into account the thousands of visitors from out of town that travel to our area just to enjoy a day at the zoo. Many of those visitors will stop and eat at our local restaurants, visit a chain store, such as Target or Hobby Lobby, which they may not have in their communities, or take in the sites of our many other attractions. And yes, they actually help our local economy right here.

Without the zoo, we would lose that, which could also have a domino effect on the businesses that visitors go to. Would they stay open? Would they close? What would that do the local economy?

Having a zoo amongst our community of the quality it is, with potential to be much more, funding should be looked at on a different level.

With the help of the Star-Herald, we began discussion with Anthony and Maren about focusing on targeting communities of eastern Wyoming and central Nebraska. The more people that know about the Riverside Discovery Center, the better it will be for all.

But they still need local support. Don’t fool yourself into thinking they are just a ticket to gain entry to the zoo. They are more important to our community than that.

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