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Throwing the first stone
In March of 2014, Dawn Mackety, CEO of the Lake Superior Zoo, and John Scott, president of the Lake Superior Zoological Society, met with Duluth city officials to discuss the future of the zoo, which had not recovered from damage it suffered in the 2012 flood. A master plan completed in 2009 had put the price tag for a full refurbishment at $40 million; the cost was now significantly higher. Mackety and Scott were seeking state bond funds to help put the zoo back on track. Mayor Don Ness gave his support to the effort, as did Duluth’s delegation in the state Legislature.
Only days earlier, Mayor Ness had unveiled plans to revitalize the St. Louis River Corridor as an outdoor recreation destination. To fund this vision, he had established a “half-and-half tax” —half percent taxes on food/beverage purchases and hotel/motel stays in the city, respectively. Proceeds of the tax would be spent on recreation projects within the St. Louis River Corridor; in multiple news stories, city officials mentioned that the zoo might be a possible recipient.
Because zoos require signature exhibits to thrive, Mackety and Scott wanted to replace the zoo’s damaged Polar Shores exhibit with a new exhibit featuring native animals and play opportunities for children that would be located above the Kingsbury Creek floodplain. They planned to name it the Forest Discovery Zone (FDZ), and they already had $534,000 in hand—$334,000 courtesy of a state sales tax earmarked for cultural heritage projects, and $200,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
On May 28, 2014, Mackety and the Zoological Society’s executive board met with the mayor’s core team (chief administrative officer Dave Montgomery, director of communications Dan Fanning and director of public administration Jim Filby Williams) to update them on the zoo’s progress. According to Mackety, “the FDZ project was discussed in detail, including the animals proposed to go in there, the perimeter fence proposed to enclose the site, the RFP process underway to select an architect, and the RFQ process underway to select the fence contractor. The city administration expressed no concerns about the FDZ project, but said they wanted to be involved in the review process to select the fence contractor and the project architect.”
Eight days later, with no warning, word came down from the mayor’s office: Stop all work on the FDZ. Stop all work on the fence. Stop everything. Mackety protested that grant funds might be lost if the projects were not done. It is not often that politicians in cash-strapped cities turn away money, but the message from City Hall was that the mayor was willing to forfeit half a million dollars.
“I was deeply concerned,” Mackety wrote to me later. This must be how professional administrators say, “WHAT THE F---?”
On June 10, 2014, Mackety had a conference call with Montgomery, Fanning and Filby Williams. She was told that the mayor wanted to “start fresh” and “implement a 50-year vision” for the zoo, and that throwing away the money they had in hand was “a necessary sacrifice to make way for a stronger vision that will get us much more in the long run.”
In addition to scrapping the FDZ project, the mayor’s vision included transforming the zoo into a “morphed-hybrid zoo focused primarily on nature-based activities.” He also wanted to establish a free pedestrian walkway through the zoo, along Kingsbury Creek, to a tunnel that was going to be built under Grand Avenue during an upcoming state highway project. Since the zoo was located on both sides of Kingsbury Creek, meeting the last demand would literally cut the zoo in half.
As the tyrannical orders sank in, the mayor’s team also advised Mackety that the mayor objected to what he saw as “condescending, uncooperative, inflexible behavior from some in the [Zoological] Society,” which he hoped would not continue.
A few weeks later, the mayor made a special appearance at the zoo, where he beamed for the news cameras as he snipped the ribbon for the zoo’s newly refurbished historic pavilion. The pavilion had been renovated using state grant money—identical to the funds the mayor had just thrown away.
The planning process
The planning process commenced with a nine-member planning team, composed of city staff, zoo staff and concerned citizens. Jim Filby Williams was the city’s point man. City councilor (now mayoral candidate) Emily Larson was also there. A consultant, Massachusetts-based ConsultEcon, was hired to gather information, listen to the planning team, and develop recommendations.
The mayor himself attended the second planning session on July 21, 2014. He talked up his new St. Louis River Corridor vision and the half-and-half tax. He said that a triangle composed of Spirit Mountain, the zoo, and Indian Point Campground would be the “hub” of the vision, and that “connectivity” among the points of the hub was crucial.
The zoo, unfortunately, was a problem for connectivity: People who wanted to ride their bikes from trails in upper Fairmount Park to Indian Point on the St. Louis River had to go around the zoo. The mayor said that getting rid of the fence was his “biggest issue.” He also mentioned getting rid of most of the animals.
As the months passed, members of the Zoo Society continued to insist that staying a zoo was important to them. They agreed that they could condense certain exhibits and get rid of some currently underutilized open space. The easiest space to open up, however, was the zoo’s southwest corner, which would separate the animal care facility from the rest of the zoo. Nobody looked forward to carrying a sick tiger across a public park.
One thing everybody agreed on was that the Polar Shores exhibit could be repurposed as an amphitheater, which would work in either a zoo or a park. People also agreed that the zoo could offer more environmental education, and that it could use a better playground. But core differences in vision continued to divide the group.
When the consultants completed their report in November of 2014, they seemed guardedly optimistic that the zoo could continue to function as a zoo. While acknowledging its problems, they saw opportunities for the zoo to leverage its strengths and regain some visitors.
There is market demand for the Zoo as well as incremental revenue potential. The Zoo has a long history in the community, is much loved and has done relatively well in spite of limited investment and resources. Membership has grown during the last 5 years, attendance is up over last year and community support for the nearly 100?year old zoo has remained high although the visitor experience has continued to decay due to deferred maintenance, under?investment and a devastating 2012 flood. Zoo attendance as recent as 1998 was 140,000 vs. 88,000 today, and an analysis of zoos in comparable sized metro areas suggests that there is substantial incremental attendance potential.
They presented two possible options for the future. Option 1, costing $12 million, would fund the Forest Discovery Zone, a new brown bear exhibit, a new amphitheater, a main building renovation and a variety of other capital needs. Option 2 would cost $16 million and fund larger versions of the same projects.
Both options assumed that the zoo would continue to receive the operational subsidies that it currently received: $510,000 per year from the city in tourism tax, and $160,000 from the state (for comparison purposes, in 2015 the city gave $177,000 in tourism tax to the Depot, $360,000 to the aquarium, and $946,000 to Spirit Mountain). Both options also assumed that the zoo would engage in a robust fundraising effort, helped in part by the new exhibits.
The ConsultEcon report may have been too optimistic for the mayor. Rather than making it public, he sat on it for six months while he searched for somebody who could give him the answers he wanted.
Behind closed doors
On October 16, 2014, Jim Filby Williams sent the mayor a long memo, talking about the planning group’s inability to reach consensus and how the administration might proceed with “pursu[ing]…a relatively pure version of the mayor’s vision.”
“I envision, and will advocate for…a visitor attraction that integrates…features of museums (children’s and natural history), destination play spaces, outdoor adventure facilities, guided outdoor recreation programs, and, to a considerably lesser extent than the first two scenarios, zoo…. The direction I propose will involve considerable political and interpersonal challenge but I believe there is a better than even chance that I can pursue it to a fruitful end,” Filby Williams wrote.
The mayor liked it. He emailed Filby Williams back. “Here is my sense—for this option, I think we take a full leap away from the status quo. Instead of ‘transforming the zoo,’ let’s introduce the concept of using the grounds and facilities for a wholly new experience—either a nature center or a children’s museum that offers hands-on animal experiences. Focus attention on establishing a regionally significant park space—free and open to the public.”
The planning group never reconvened. The mayor decided to form a new group and move the discussion behind closed doors. Filby Williams assembled five “like-minded trusted thinkers” for the group—four members of the mayor’s staff and one citizen of Esko: Hansi Johnson.
Currently a photographer and mountain biker, Johnson was previously a salesman for outdoor gear companies and the former regional director of the Midwest Mountain Biking Association. For the last several years, he had advocated for an interconnected network of bike trails in Duluth, spending a lot of time raising funds and organizing volunteer groups to help build the trails. Browsing his Facebook page is exhausting—it’s an endless parade of people engaged in highly active lifestyles, peppered with exclamation-laden commentary: “Killer day ripping Spirit Mountain today! Full house!” “Awesome climbers event this weekend!!” “Awesome day at the Duluth Enduro!!!” “Awesome stuff here!” “Sweet!”
In time, Johnson’s passion led to more lucrative opportunities. In 2014, the city paid the nonprofit Minnesota Land Trust $310,000 to conduct a three-year “assessment of and marketing for the city’s trails and other outdoor adventure experiences.” To carry out the work, the Land Trust created a new position, Director of Recreational Lands, and hired Hansi Johnson to fill it.
Mayor Ness has made completion of the interconnected trail system a top city priority. On the cover of his recent book of photo essays, Hillsider: Snapshots of a Curious Political Journey, the mayor stands next to a bike trail in the woods, arms folded, radiating optimism. The photographer who took the photo was Hansi Johnson.
Filby Williams was concerned that the new planning group was too small. The mayor disagreed. “My gut is this,” he wrote, “—we have a very tight timeline and have engaged in a great deal of public input sessions that have resulted in options….I would feel comfortable just staying with the core group you have identified and developing a concept for consideration.”
On December 4, Filby Williams sent the mayor a report that identified potential capital financing sources, preliminary cost estimates, and possible operating models for the mayor’s vision at Fairmount Park. He also discussed potential managers who could replace the Zoological Society. He mentioned the Hartley Nature Center and the YMCA, but singled out the “Duluth Children’s Museum under the leadership of their new executive director, Cameron Kruger” as the best choice.
“This is amazingly good work,” the mayor wrote back. “I am very excited about the potential to see this fleshed out and presented as a contrasting vision for the site. I showed it to my wife Laura and she could hardly contain her excitement that something like this might be possible. Please proceed.”
Filby Williams hired another consultant, HKGi of Minneapolis, to develop a plan that matched the mayor’s vision. The initial sum paid to the HKGi was $24,800. A later addition would bring the total fee to $37,800. Because the amount of a contract requiring city council approval is $40,000, the council (and the public) never saw this contract, or knew it existed, until months later.
Cameron Kruger, for his part, jumped at the chance to be included in the mayor’s vision. “My initial reaction…is excitement for our community….I do believe the museum is a great fit for the model you have outlined,” he emailed Filby Williams. “It is on my radar to cull the [Children’s Museum] collection down to about half of what we have, but the last time this was attempted there was a huge outcry from the community and we lost a lot of support….I [talked] to my staff regarding their take on an outdoor/nature focus for the museum and who we would be without the collection, and I feel confident that we can move forward with a discussion.”
To put it another way: The city wanted a children’s museum that was no longer a children’s museum to run a zoo that was no longer a zoo.
At any rate, this may never come to pass. The Children’s Museum was only mentioned in City Hall emails during January and February of 2015. When I spoke with Cameron Kruger recently, he said that he had heard nothing more from the city after the preliminary talks early in the year.
Throughout this process, the Zoological Society fretted among themselves about being excluded, but never made their concerns public. On February 26, 2015, Dawn Mackety emailed board members asking them to continue their silence. “Don’t tell folks the board hasn’t been involved in the process,” she cautioned. “While it’s true, the controversy doesn’t benefit anyone.”
Undoubtedly, the zoo’s silence had much to do with their contract, which expires at the end of 2015. Throughout the process, discussions of the zoo’s future have been inextricably bound up with contract negotiations.
The doors open (a little)
On April 27, 2015, Jim Filby Williams and consultants gave a presentation on the zoo to the city council. This was the first time in the year-long planning process that anything was made public. Tom Martin of ConsultEcon spoke of the $12- and $16 million refurbishment options. Bryan Harjes of HKGi offered a grab bag of other possibilities—“outdoor adventure playgrounds,” a “forest adventure course,” an “indoor climbing area,” “a farm-to-table restaurant/brew pub,” “art installation opportunities,” and so on. In Harjes’s vision, the animal presence on the site would be reduced to a petting zoo.
In his opening and closing remarks, Filby Williams made the administration’s position clear.
The big question about this city-owned property is simply this: What should Fairmount Park be for the next 30 to 40 years? Should we improve, maintain and subsidize Fairmount Park predominantly as a zoo? Or should we transform Fairmount Park into a different kind of public place, that might include some animals but need not function exclusively as a zoo?...
Imagine a family with children in the northern part of the neighborhood today….If not for the zoo, that family could walk 300 feet through a beautiful natural setting whenever they like, to a gorgeous trout stream where they could do whatever they like—read a book, splash in the creek, play at the playground, have a picnic. In contrast, today this family would have to wait until the zoo’s 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours, walk two-thirds of a mile, much of it along busy Grand Avenue, pay a significant admission fee, go through the main zoo building, and walk through the grounds to the creek’s edge, where, in an institutional zoo setting, they might not feel entirely comfortable engaging in non-zoo activities for a long period of time….
Is it wise for the city to spend this much up front and per year to maintain Fairmount Park as a zoo? I’d like to respectfully suggest that the answer is probably no.
City councilors were less convinced. They were dismayed at the amount of information being thrown at them all at once. They requested a second committee meeting to consider the issue.
If the mayor had bike enthusiasts on his side, the zoo had state lawmakers on theirs. When stories about the zoo appeared in the papers, Senator Roger Reinert and Representative Erik Simonson both expressed their support for a zoo with animals. Reinert was especially vocal. “A zoo that doesn’t include animals is a nonstarter with me. A zoo that is sort of a glorified park is not one that I want to support,” Reinert told the Duluth News Tribune on May 22. In a Budgeteer News column, Reinert advocated building a trail along the western edge of the zoo, outside the fence. “This route would connect the DWP and Western Waterfront Trails without encroaching on the integrity of the zoo.”
On June 4, 2015, the city Parks Commission held a special meeting to hear about the zoo plans. Filby Williams and Bryan Harjes spent five minutes talking about Options 1 and 2 and half an hour talking about Option 3. Thirteen members of the public, some of them weeping, spoke to commissioners. All asked that the zoo be saved.
On June 15, 2015, the city council held its second committee meeting on the issue. For the first time, the administration’s position seemed to have moderated. When Councilor Sharla Gardner said, “It’s my understanding that this conversation is not a question about whether or not there will be a zoo. There is going to be some kind of a zoo, right?” Mr. Filby Williams replied, “That’s correct.” And when Councilor Linda Krug asked if the city’s intention was to get rid of the Zoological Society, Filby Williams said, ”On the contrary, we…are continuing to meet intensively with their board as a whole, and with their leadership individually, to find common ground that we’re determined to find.”
As I have mentioned, the Zoological Society’s contract expires at the end of the year. As of this writing, nothing has been settled. At a Zoological Society board meeting held on September 16, 2015, board president John Scott said that he felt some progress was being made. He pointed out that the city had approved a new wallaby exhibit for the zoo several months earlier. “Everybody thinks it’s always a cantankerous sort of relationship, but they did sign off on us having the wallabies. So we have to kind of reinforce it—hey, things are still going on, and there’s certainly been a lot of public news that’s been positive, so we have to keep on fueling that piece of the message.”
As for the contract negotiations, Scott revealed almost nothing, saying only that some common ground was being found. If no understanding is reached by the end of the year, the Zoological Society’s contract will be extended on a month-to-month basis—unless the city cancels it.
On October 1, Jim Filby Williams answered my questions slowly, speaking with care. When I asked if the city might cancel the Zoological Society‘s contract, he said, “You know, my assignment is to help to reach a sensible consensus for zoo and park facilities that would continue to be managed and led and programmed by the Zoological Society. I remain hopeful we will get to that place.”
He went on. “It’s just a very, very difficult policy-planning puzzle to meet multiple goals of improving access to quality park space, putting the zoo on a financially sustainable path, retaining and sustaining our quality zoo experience, and doing that with very stubborn limitations on space and money, that together require both parties to be willing to compromise substantially, and to think very creatively about how to align park and zoo goals that in some ways want to be opposed to one another….At the end of the day, it’s a bunch of honorable people who are trying to solve a really hard problem, and they’re still sticking their noses to the grindstone and trying to work resolution.” He sounded tired.
When I asked what the bottom line was for the negotiations, he said, “We’ve met a couple times recently with the executive leadership, and I think those discussions point to a potential compromise and creative solution that we’re hoping to flesh out in the next couple of weeks.”
The zoo continues to get support from Duluth’s state legislators. Senator Reinert has a bonding bill before the Legislature that would grant $1.9 million to the zoo for the amphitheater. This is no guarantee that the money will be secured, but it’s a step.
If the Zoological Society is still around when Mayor Ness departs City Hall on December 31, they will be dealing with a new administration. What this means for the future is unknown.
I have studied this issue for the past several months—sifting through City Hall emails, reading reports and contracts, interviewing players in the game. Both sides of the argument have good points—an open, accessible Fairmount Park sounds nice; so, too, does a revitalized zoo. The one thing I can say with certainty is that the city administration started the discussion with an unprovoked attack on the zoo, spent a great deal of effort undermining the zoo and its leadership, and kept the public in the dark about it all.
It is undeniable that the zoo faces major financial challenges; it is equally undeniable that the city is unable to fund all of the needed improvements.
Interestingly, the mayor’s vision before anything was planned was the same as it was after the planning teams and hired consultants had done their work—which begs the question: If the mayor already knew what he wanted, why waste staff hours and city money on consultants? Why didn’t he just bellow out his orders from the office?
The reason, I think, is that the mayor has a reputation for inclusiveness that he would like to preserve. Where this reputation came from, I don’t know, because Mayor Ness has been just as secretive, and every bit as stubborn, as Mayors Bergson and Doty were. But Mayor Ness, with his boyish face, infectious enthusiasm and devotion to local music and brew pubs, so perfectly embodies the community’s sense of itself that people just assume he’s inclusive. And he says he is, too, which helps. But his record says otherwise.