TAMPA — The Lowry Park Zoo's plans to build a new veterinary hospital this year and more upgrades later got a key boost Thursday from the Tampa City Council.
Council members voted to help the zoo borrow up to $6.5 million from SunTrust Bank to finance a new animal care complex that includes the hospital and other improvements.
The city, which owns the zoo, will act as a pass-through for the tax-exempt loan. City officials say taxpayers will have no financial responsibility for or risk from the debt.
"The zoo, they do not come to the well very often to ask us for a whole lot of stuff," said Mike Suarez, the council's representative to the zoo's board. "This is easy for us to do."
Zoo administrators said the loan will provide interim financing while they continue to raise funds for their New Horizons campaign, which started in late 2010.
"The benefit of today's decision is that we can keep up momentum on preparing the site for a very complicated animal care complex while we continue to raise the funds we need," Lowry Park Zoo chief executive officer Craig Pugh said after the vote.
So far, the zoo has pledges of a little more than $7 million. It needs to raise $3 million more for the animal hospital to be open and fully funded by late 2014.
When complete, the animal care complex will have four buildings:
• The veterinary hospital, which will have areas for surgery, pharmacy, radiology, labs and offices.
• Animal quarantine and holding areas.
• A conservation center for study and research.
• A commissary capable of storing enough fresh produce and food to get the zoo through a hurricane and to prepare a wide range of daily animal meals.
"From tadpoles to elephants, you've got to be able to coordinate and prepare diets for more than a thousand animals," Pugh said.
The veterinary hospital and animal commissary are expected to be done by late this year, and the timing is important.
That's because next year the zoo is due for a five-year evaluation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which will determine whether it meets standards for accreditation. In 2010, the association told the zoo it needed to improve older facilities, including its veterinary hospital and manatee hospital.
As a result, the zoo also is working to raise money to upgrade pumps and water filtration components at its Manatee and Aquatic Center, the home of the world's only nonprofit manatee hospital. Since opening in 1991, the manatee hospital has treated more than 330 manatees, or a number equal to about 6 percent of Florida's population of manatees in the wild.
Zoo administrators say the 22-year-old life support equipment needs $2 million in capital improvements. By comparison, it would cost an estimated $23 million to replace the facility in today's dollars.
Accreditation is critically important to the zoo for several reasons. First, its lease with the city of Tampa requires maintaining it. And top zoos elsewhere look for the accreditation when deciding whether to let the zoo borrow rare, protected animals for breeding.
In 2008, in the wake of a controversy over then-president Lex Salisbury's private and unauthorized use of zoo animals, personnel and materials, the association temporarily revoked the zoo's accreditation, restoring it a few months later.
Salisbury left the zoo after a city audit in late 2008 concluded that he had engaged in transactions involving more than 200 animals with the zoo — buying, loaning, trading and taking some as outright gifts. Further, auditors said the zoo paid to build fences, a horse barn, a primate barn and shade structures on Polk County property that Salisbury planned to open as an animal park.
Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, Danielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.