The Cameron Park Zoo will start its waddle toward big improvements after voters approved a $14.5 million bond Tuesday that will pay for an expansion that includes a South African black-footed penguin exhibit and other upgrades.
Voters overwhelmingly supported the countywide zoo expansion bond, with 66.26%, or 13,191, voting in favor and 33.74%, or 6,717, voting against, according to unofficial results available Tuesday.
“I am so happy and so pleased,” Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society Director Terri Cox said Tuesday night. “We’ve worked really hard, and this is going to bring great, great things to the zoo and the community.”
The approval will allow the planned penguin exhibit to be built in an undeveloped part of the zoo near the herpetarium. Zoo officials have said the site’s uneven elevation leaves room to create an observation window where guests can watch the penguins swim.
The exhibit has not been designed yet, but could include a stage for shows and a patio for guests to rest. The penguins are considered endangered, and the zoo plans to join in conservation efforts to protect their numbers in the wild once they arrive in the zoo.
“We might have had a little bit of an advantage because they (penguins) are pretty cute and they are critically endangered, so we want to save those little guys,” Cox said. “I am so humbled and impressed. It tells me our community really cares about the zoo and what a large role we play in the community, so that is really gratifying and it makes us want to do better and more.”
In addition to the penguin exhibit, the bond will also cover construction of an $8 million education and veterinary complex, located near the zoo’s Fourth Street entrance. The zoo’s current veterinary facility is part of the commissary building.
The zoo currently hosts school field trips, classes and seminars for visiting zoo professionals and veterinarians in a room interim zoo director Johnny Binder described as roughly the size of a master bedroom.
The new building will house the zoo’s great ape cardiac health program and be equipped to hold video conferences with veterinary and conservation programs in other countries, including the live streaming of veterinary procedures. The zoo now cares for 1,628 animals in a small facility, requiring vets to treat some animals in their nighttime enclosures.
“I think this is very exciting for the zoo, the city, and the county so we can expand our programming, our veterinary care, and our exhibit(s) to bring some really fun animals to our collection,” Binder said. “The zoo has become a global institution with conservation, natural habitat exhibits and so forth, and this will just make it an even greater institution.”
Binder has been serving as interim zoo director since April 2018 when former director Jim Fleshman was asked to resign. In two weeks, Chris Vanskike, the current vice president of operations, facilities and construction for the San Antonio Zoo will step in as Cameron Park Zoo director.
With the bond approved, the zoo is also planning a $100,000 remodel of its commissary, which was built when the zoo opened in 1993, and a $375,000 renovation of its wooden hoofstock barn.
The Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society has received a $1 million donation from Dutch and Carol Schmidhauser for the veterinary hospital and has raised $220,000 for the penguin exhibit.
The projects are expected to be completed between fall 2021 and spring 2022.
Zoo officials have said the county’s expanding tax base and other debt being paid off mean the bond will not directly result in an increase to the county property tax rate.
The county does not and will not fund the zoo’s operation and maintenance, which the city of Waco subsidizes by about $2.7 million per year. The bond also includes a 10% contingency should construction estimates prove low.