When it opens Friday, the Kansas City Zoo’s new $15 million penguin exhibit will offer the latest evidence that metropolitan area residents are closer than ever to enjoying a world-class zoo.
That’s quite a comeback for a facility that 20 years ago was an afterthought for many local families looking for entertainment and, even a decade ago, suffered from a case of unfulfilled ambitions.
But combine a skillful zoo director with steady taxpayer funding for a public facility, and today’s zoo has made remarkable progress.
Director Randy Wisthoff has dramatically enhanced the zoo’s image during his decade of service. He is keeping his promise to the public to bring in popular exhibits such as Polar Bear Passage and, now, more than 40 penguins to a modern building. They will include king penguins, rockhoppers, gentoos and Humboldts.
Wisthoff has made sure these high-profile exhibits as well as a few others are close to the zoo’s entrance. That soothes many critics who once complained about how long it took to wander around the facility to find animals.
The zoo remains large, but that’s an asset — offering space for many animals to roam around wide open spaces, where people can watch them in more natural settings.
The penguin exhibit provides more evidence that Jackson and Clay county voters made the right decision in 2011 when they approved a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase to help finance the improvements. The tax raises $12 million a year.
Zoo officials also have kept their pledge to offer reduced-price and free admission deals to Jackson and Clay county residents, plus Zoomobiles that can bring animals and speakers to community groups, and free field trips for school groups in the two participating counties.
In the future, the zoo hopes to add more penguins to the new exhibit. Other upgrades — such as updated settings for big cats, giraffes and orangutans — will be completed. They will help continue the Kansas City Zoo’s transformation into a first-class amenity that will attract more local visitors and others from nearby states.
The upgrades could happen even more quickly if — in a victory for regional cooperation — voters in other counties on both sides of the state line are given the opportunities to help build a much better zoo.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.