Facing a record budget deficit, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is seeking an additional $4 million in state funding to maintain its operations.
Amid rising costs and slumping attendance, the zoo built up a $3 million deficit during the fiscal year ending in June, in part because of a decline in the number of visitors and a lack of funding for maintenance and upgrades at the aging attraction in Druid Hill Park, according to zoo officials.
Funding for the zoo - which is largely subsidized by the state but also through limited resources from the city and area counties - has increased by an average of 1 percent annually since 1993.
Zoo officials say the state funding has not kept pace with cost increases in everything from animal food to construction fees. If the zoo's request is granted, the state's funding would double to about $8 million - a substantial boost to the zoo's $12 million annual operating budget.
"The zoo has been underfunded for many, many years and we have operated at a deficit since at least 2000," said Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb, the zoo's president and chief executive, in a recent interview.
"What we're trying to do is fix it. We have not done a good job of really putting forward the case for more funding and haven't adequately described our predicament. We're a very old zoo, so we have a lot of aging facilities on our campus. I don't think we've been aggressive enough in seeking public funding."
The zoo's funding woes will likely serve as an early challenge for the incoming gubernatorial administration of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, which is already facing a projected long-term $1 billion annual revenue shortfall. O'Malley officials said the incoming governor and his transition team are still crafting the administration's spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
"We are aware of the request and we are working with the zoo to address these issues," said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley. "Obviously the zoo is an important civic asset to both the city and the state and we're looking forward to working with them."
Del. Talmadge Branch, the House majority whip and member of the Appropriations Committee, said the zoo has received "modest increases" in funding over the years. He said the looming gap between projected state revenues and expenses could be an obstacle for a substantial increase.
"I don't know how we're going to do it, given the budget crunch," Branch said. "But it's something we're going to have to look at. Doubling the funding doesn't seem likely; that's why it's going to take us to really look at it closely and see what it is we can do. Normally, that's really unusual for us to double funding like that."
Today, the 130-year-old zoo is a much leaner version of its former self. In 2003, it laid off 20 employees, sent more than 400 animals to other facilities and closed the main valley, in a large cost-cutting plan.
After the zoo publicly floated the idea of loaning its two beloved elephants - Dolly and Anna - to another zoo to save money, state officials delivered an emergency-financing package. About $1 million in private donations also poured in. But with the increase in funding came a name change last year, from the Baltimore Zoo to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.
Next month will mark the third year in which the zoo closes for two months during the winter to save money on operations and snow removal at a time when visitors don't come out in large numbers.
Over the years, the zoo has steadily raised its admission price, from $6.50 for an adult ticket in 1993 when 537,000 visited, to $15 this year - with attendance expected to be about 332,000. Zoo officials said the increases were necessary to bring in much-needed revenue, but acknowledge that the admission price may be too high and probably a deterrent to visitors.
Baltimore's zoo is not alone in facing money problems. Zoos in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Buffalo, N.Y., have been forced to cut back spending in recent years.
Despite its financial troubles, the zoo has continued to aggressively court visitors by bringing in high-profile animals and renovating old exhibits with money from its capital campaigns.
This spring, three elephants from the Philadelphia Zoo - Petal, Kallie and Bette - will make Baltimore their new home. An $11 million upgrade is planned for the elephant exhibit, adding 6 acres of space to its existing grounds. The state has pledged $5.5 million for the project.
Last year, the zoo spent $1.3 million on renovations that included a new tram service and upgrades to its Polar Bear Watch and Maryland Wilderness exhibits.
"You cannot cut your way to profitability," said Thomas M. Berger, the zoo's newly hired chief financial officer. "We have to create a product with high value that people will be willing to come see. The operating side is probably running as close to the best as it can. There's always ways to cut expenditures. But we're really trying to improve the revenue side."
"We have a wonderful zoo," Grieb said. "In the past, we were recognized as one of the leading zoos in the country and I think we've slipped from the position and it's not what the state wants and it's not what the community wants. There's a huge amount of affection for the zoo when you talk to people who grew up in Baltimore and I think it would be an absolute tragedy if we weren't able to return to our glory."