The outlook for the Akron Zoo was bleak.

It was tiny. The animals were run of the mill. And there even was a question about whether it was time to shut down.

That was in the late 1990s, before Summit County taxpayers stepped in. With zoo leaders pledging additional animals and features, voters approved a new tax levy in 2000 to funnel more than $8 million a year into the operation.

Voters eagerly renewed the tax issue in 2006.

The zoo has worked magic with the money, opening such popular exhibits as Penguin Point, Legends of the Wild, Journey to the Reef and, this summer, the $12 million Grizzly Ridge, which will bring bears, red wolves and coyotes to the zoo.

The public has responded enthusiastically, with annual attendance rising 173 percent to more than 330,000.

But the zoo, which will ask voters to renew the 0.8-mill, seven-year levy later this year, also is now much more dependent on taxpayer support than other nonprofit zoos around the country, according to a Beacon Journal survey.

The newspaper examined Form 990 reports filed with the IRS for 2011 to compare the Akron Zoo’s finances with 30 randomly selected nonprofit zoos — those run by independent zoological societies and not owned by local governments.

The results show that the Akron Zoo receives about 70 percent of its overall revenue from taxpayers. (That figure does not include the fact the zoo receives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in free water and sewer service from the city of Akron.)

Only two zoos came close to that percentage: The Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, at 65 percent, and the Toledo Zoo at 50 percent.

Meanwhile, the Columbus and Cincinnati zoos received 33 percent and 16 percent, respectively. (Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is run by that park system and is not a nonprofit.)

Some nonprofit zoos, such as the Indianapolis Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Naples (Fla.) Zoo, reported getting no tax revenue or government support.

Zoo responds

Akron Zoo leaders acknowledge they need to work harder to lessen the reliance on tax money, but stress that the taxpayer support has transformed the facility into one of the county’s most visited and affordable attractions.

For anyone who visited the zoo in the late 1990s and then today, positive changes are undeniable.

“For this point in time, that percentage is just fine,” zoo President and Chief Executive Officer Patricia Simmons said. “As we grow and mature, we should see that percentage reduce because we’ll earn more money and we’ll have more donations and other ways of becoming recognized by the community. That’s what we’re looking to accomplish.”

But why hasn’t the zoo been able to reduce its reliance on taxpayers in the last 14 years?

Simmons, who has worked at the zoo since the early 1980s, compared the Akron Zoo to a teenager, saying it’s still growing.

Other, more established zoos in larger metropolitan areas already have built out their operations and, in many cases, enjoy a greater amount of ticket revenue and merchandise sales to help pay the bills, she said.

Zoo board Chairman Robert Littman noted that the tax money has been put to good use and essentially created a new zoo.

“Over the two levies, we’ve spent close to $70 million on capital to build buildings, to build exhibits,” he said. “A significant portion of the levy proceeds were used to build the zoo.”

Ultimately, the level of taxpayer support is of little concern if voters are satisfied with the zoo and the amount they’re paying. No one has criticized the amount of taxpayer support, although it’s likely people don’t know how their nonprofit zoo compares with others.

Zoo history

The city-owned Akron Zoo got its start in 1953 as a small children’s zoo with guinea pigs, sheep and other domestic animals in Mother Goose exhibits.

The city turned over the operation to a nonprofit zoological board in 1980 but still subsidized the group. The board is made up of 27 members.

Before the levy was approved in 2000, the zoo received an annual subsidy of $390,000, or about a quarter of its budget.

Some view the current level of tax support as a positive. In addition to the significant expansion it has funded, the subsidy helps keep ticket and membership prices low compared to other facilities.

The price of a children’s ticket, for example, has risen only $2 in 12 years and goes for $7. The same ticket costs $9.99 in Columbus, $10 in Cincinnati and $11 in Toledo.

Just as important, tax dollars invested in a zoo help with tourism, economic development and recreational opportunities, and fulfill a community’s public mission to support education, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums in Silver Spring, Md.

Zoos, which nationwide contribute $16 billion to the U.S. economy, also are factors when national groups rate the “livability” of a community, he said.

“The Akron Zoo is right up there in terms of quality and family enjoyment,” Feldman said.

Hard to compare

It’s difficult to compare zoos for a variety of reasons: size of the zoo and its surrounding community, whether it’s supported by tax levies and whether it’s owned by a nonprofit or a local government.

But all share a need for funding.

Zoos generally raise money in three ways: taxes/government support, philanthropy and earned revenue from ticket sales, merchandise sales and special events.

Some zoos also run separate businesses. For example, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium operates a golf course and water park that bring in additional revenue.

Zoos also have expanded into special fundraising events, such as evening beer tastings.

The Akron Zoo offers special “keeper for a day” and “veterinarian for a day” promotions, and behind-the-scenes tours that cost extra. It also charges to ride its carousel and train on top of the price of general admission.

Akron Zoo leaders say that for every dollar raised through taxes for its operating budget, the zoo matches that with $1 in earned revenue. That statistic, though, can be misleading because it doesn’t take into account millions of dollars in tax money set aside for capital projects.

Zoo leaders note that earned revenue rose 7 percent from 2008 to 2011. The Akron Zoo took in $2.3 million from admissions, memberships and special events in 2011.

Other zoos are able to take in much more ticket, membership and event revenue because of their size and number of visitors. For example, the Toledo Zoo took in $9 million and the Cincinnati Zoo got $10.6 million.

The Akron Zoo also faces another issue that most other zoos don’t: It’s less than 40 miles from Cleveland’s zoo, a much larger operation with more animals and exhibits.

That presents plenty of challenges to attract visitors, nab philanthropic donations and make a name for itself in the same media market, Akron zoo officials said.

Akron has chosen to focus on the intimate access it provides as it pushes the marketing slogan: “You’ve never been this close!”

Levy push

Akron Zoo leaders appeared last week before the Summit County Council to discuss the levy effort.

The council must approve placing the renewal levy on the fall ballot, and based on the public comments council members made, that’s a slam dunk.

Council members fawned over the zoo, saying it has been fiscally responsible and is a great asset for the community.

“Our zoo is something remarkable to be proud of,” Councilman Frank Comunale said, adding that zoo leadership “needs to be rewarded” with support for the levy.

The zoo will seek a renewal levy — no increase in taxes collected — because that’s what a majority of taxpayers preferred in a recent telephone poll, Simmons said.

The levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $23 a year.

The zoo will campaign for its levy with the simple message that it has delivered on all its promises. The general public wanted the zoo to expand and it has, Simmons said.

There are 23 more animal exhibits and three times as many animals on display than in 2000.

And there’s still room to grow. Only 35 acres at the 50-acre zoo property are developed.

Zoo leaders have plans for more capital improvements, but declined to say what they are considering until first asking the public.

Simmons said the advantage of having the taxpayer support isn’t lost on zoo leaders.

“It shows how much this community is willing to support their zoo,” she said. “And to have that level of support is humbling. And that’s why we want to deliver for this community.”

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com.