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What is the future of the Lake Superior Zoo?

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The Lake Superior Zoo is a beloved attraction. Begun in 1923, it is an "anchor tenant" in the St. Louis River Corridor. But the future of the zoo is in question. The flooding of 2012 was a huge financial and emotional loss and the zoo has never quite recovered. The popular polar bear exhibit still sits vacant today.

Another daunting challenge for the Lake Superior Zoo will begin this summer when Grand Avenue/Highway 23 undergoes major reconstruction for the next two years. The Minnesota Department of Transportation's plan calls for removing the existing entrance and building a new one just off Grand Avenue. The entrance will include a new driveway with a lighted monument, filtration ponds and even a new monarch butterfly habitat.

This reconstruction also creates the opportunity to connect the Western Waterfront Trail to the DWP Trail. A clear connection does not currently exist and attempting to find your way on foot means crossing Highway 23 at grade. The solution is a new bridge to be installed over Kingsbury Creek and a pedestrian walkway created underneath, an excellent idea which has our support.

However, as currently designed, the walkway potentially creates an open entry directly into the heart of the zoo. This is problematic for the zoo both in terms of much-needed admission revenue and for staff who must ensure the safety of visitors and zoo animals.

To remedy this situation, we advocate a plan to bring the trail under Highway 23 and then around the perimeter of the zoo. Immediately west of the zoo is a former access road that leads uphill to the DWP trails. This route would connect the DWP and Western Waterfront Trails without encroaching on the integrity of the zoo. This can easily be done during the road reconstruction this summer.

Another immediate concern regarding the zoo is unspent state grant funds. In the past the zoo has been awarded several Legacy grants. However, these grants were awarded over a year ago and remain unspent. One grant is to help the zoo design future use of the main educational building. The other would allow the zoo to begin development of a "Forest Discovery Zone" activity center. Both projects would enhance the zoo's offerings and strengthen programming. Returning these grants would reflect poorly on the zoo and could harm future efforts by other Duluth organizations to secure Legacy grants.

Lastly, it is critical that we continue to redesign and improve the zoo's current footprint. The heart of the zoo, the polar bear exhibit, was destroyed in the 2012 flood. The zoo needs a new center of energy and activity and we support creating an open pavilion for educational lectures, hands-on activities and music. A bonding request was submitted this session to support that vision. The local match for this project would come from the half-cent lodging and food/beverage tax reinstated during the 2014 legislative session. We authored last year's legislation so additional dollars could serve as the local match for projects just like this one.

Duluth must have a public conversation about the future of the Lake Superior Zoo, a future that is supported across the community and is financially stable. We also know that Duluthians love the Lake Superior Zoo. As legislators, we are open to all options that are in the zoo's long-term best interest and are committed to preserving the integrity of the zoo as a zoo.

Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, represents District 7 in the Minnesota Senate. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, is the Minnesota state representative for District 7B.