The Akron Zoo has asked the county to place a tax levy increase on the ballot to help pay for an expansion to an exhibit that opened this year.
Akron Zoo President and CEO Doug Piekarz visited Summit County Council on Monday to provide an update on the zoo and present the request.
The zoo is asking for the renewal of an existing 0.8-mill tax levy plus an increase of 0.4 mills, for a total tax levy of 1.2 mills. The zoo is also requesting a 10-year duration for the levy, starting in 2021 for collection from 2022 through 2031.
Piekarz said along with keeping the zoo affordable, the additional millage is expected to help fund an expansion of the Pride of Africa exhibit that opened this summer. The expansion could include giraffes, zebras and African primates — a popular request from visitors based on survey data.
Piekarz said although the zoo receives philanthropic support — its other sources of funding are the levy and its own earned revenue — "that alone cannot fund this plan," said Piekarz, who said this is the first time the zoo has requested an increase in 20 years.
"We do feel it's critical to our mission to keep the Akron Zoo accessible to everyone by maintaining reasonable and affordable pricing for our community," he said. "Based on our projections, an increase in millage of four-tenths of a mill would fund the Pride of Africa Phase II concept plan and ensure a quality guest experience that remains affordable while maintaining our facilities and growing the impact of our programs moving forward."
The Pride of Africa exhibit, which features new habitats for African lions, Speke’s gazelles and white storks, plus a new contact area to feed sheep and goats and an extended train ride, opened in June, attracting 10,000 zoo visitors during opening weekend.
Wild Asia, scheduled to open next summer, will provide new habitats for Sumatran tigers, red pandas and white-cheeked gibbons. The two exhibits are part of a $17 million project funded by a combination of levy funds and private donations from the zoo’s ROAR campaign.
Voters passed the first property tax for the Akron Zoo in 2000. The seven-year, 0.8-mill levy, which committed $8.1 million a year to the zoo, was renewed in 2006 and 2013.
The zoo is asking that the tax levy be placed on the ballot for the March 17, 2020, primary election for county voters to decide. The county fiscal officer will certify the dollar amount of revenue that the levy would generate.
According to a 2019 study from the Chicago-based Market & Feasibility Advisors, since 2011, the Akron Zoo has had an overall economic impact of more than $506 million across Summit County and generated nearly $8 in impact for every $1 of levy support received, with $66.9 million invested and $506 million returned.
The zoo saw 362,287 visitors in 2018, down from the zoo’s all-time record attendance of 416,942 the year before. Piekarz attributed the lower number to frequent wet weather, road construction in the area and two areas of the zoo being under construction.
"We do expect as all of those begin to clear up that we will actually see greater engagement again," said Piekarz, who shared attendance data that he said shows each time the zoo opens a significant new exhibit or attraction, attendance increases.
Monday’s meeting also included a visit from Akron Zoo animal ambassador keeper Kaitlyn Gabriel and animal ambassador Hoot, a great horned owl that’s at least 15 years old and came to the zoo in 2011. Before a stop at the Cincinnati Zoo, Hoot came from Florida, where zoo staff think he might have been hit by a car.
A resolution about the proposed tax levy increase received a first reading at county council’s meeting Monday. Council will discuss the resolution and vote on it at future meetings.
Council will not meet next Monday because of the Columbus Day holiday. The next meeting is Monday, Oct. 21.
Contact reporter Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, firstname.lastname@example.org and @EmilyMills818.