Zoo given credit to pay bills, avoid layoffs -- for now

The Baltimore Sun

With help from the Abell Foundation, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore has received a $1.2 million bank credit it needs to get through the next two months without firing employees and stiffing vendors, officials said.

Zoo officials do not expect to spend the entire line of credit from PNC Bank because revenues have improved since the March birth of an elephant -- whose name will be unveiled at his public debut Saturday. And officials are optimistic that a baby camel's visit in May will continue to boost attendance.

"[The credit] will allow us to meet our cash flow needs during this time when our expenses are getting ahead of our revenues," said Nancy S. Noppenberger, the zoo's chief financial officer.

For years, the zoo has been struggling with financial problems as attendance has declined, private money has stagnated, and maintenance and operating needs have soared beyond its $12.5 million budget. Unless the zoo completes costly repairs by September, it could lose the national accreditation it has had since 1980 from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

PNC Bank approved the line of credit last week only after the Druid Hill Park attraction persuaded the Abell Foundation to serve as a co-signer to guarantee repayment, zoo officials said. The zoo had exhausted its existing line of credit with Bank of America, and local and state governments, which bailed the zoo out of a deficit last year, told it to look elsewhere first.

The Abell Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit organization, guaranteed the "bridge loan" on the condition that the zoo repay PNC when the state's $5.2 million allocation arrives about July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

Abell President Robert C. Embry Jr. said yesterday that the foundation has provided guarantees to 15 other organizations through the years.

Noppenberger said the zoo would continue to try to improve its finances by increasing corporate sponsorships, cutting costs and boosting attendance to avoid borrowing the entire $1.2 million.

"That's our highest hope," she said.

Zoo President Donald P. Hutchinson said he expects to spend less than $750,000 of the PNC Bank credit. The zoo is examining and restructuring contracts with outside businesses and has cut positions in marketing.

Without the line of credit, he said, "We weren't going to have enough money to pay our vendors."

Warm weather this month has helped the zoo attract more visitors during the week, and last weekend the zoo generated $50,000 in revenues, Hutchinson said.

"That's a good weekend for us," he said.

Noppenberger said the baby elephant, and the interest sparked by inviting the public to name it, has helped lure people to the zoo. Visitors suggested names and that list was pared to five by a panel of dignitaries that included Mayor Sheila Dixon.

The public can vote on the names -- Chewie, Crush, Duke, Samson and Zeus -- at the Web sites of the zoo and WBAL-TV, she said. The newly named baby elephant will be introduced Saturday in the main elephant yard.

"We are baby-proofing the yard so he can play with his mom," she said. "Now that he's a month old, he's ready to come out and play."

In May, the exotic animal company that comes to the zoo from the Midwest every summer to offer camel rides will bring an added attraction: a baby camel.

"We're going to do everything we can to drive attendance," she said.


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