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Calgary Zoo scales back expansion plans

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by Suzanne Zwarun

The Calgary Zoo’s ambitious Arctic Shores exhibit has been scaled back due to construction costs, not controversy.


Construction costs, not controversy, have put paid to a large part of the Calgary Zoo’s ambitious Arctic Shores exhibit.

With the original $120 million budget blown up to $200 million, the zoo has tanked the whale tank, restaurant and banquet facilities in Arctic Shores.

It is pinning its hopes of building polar bear, penguin and sea otter facilities on the generosity of the federal government.

The pool for belugas was to have been a whale of a construction project that would rival American attractions such as Sea World.

But “we said we would not bring beluga whales if we couldn’t do it to world class standards,” said Grahame Newton, zoo director of education and corporate services. “And with the way it currently sits, we just couldn’t do that.”

“It’s just not an affordable proposition for us now.”

The Arctic Shores proposal has generated vociferous opposition from animal rights activists who took credit for the zoo’s difficulty in raising private money for the project.

Given the size of the proposed aquarium, even Ald. Joe Ceci called it a “happy coincidence” that plans for it had to be dropped to live within the zoo’s means. While Arctic Shores is being scaled back, city council has proved sympathetic to the zoo’s money problems. Ahead of schedule, it just advanced $2.5 million of its $30 million commitment to zoo expansion so renovations to the tunnel leading from the north entrance can go ahead immediately.

With the whales gone, the zoo’s Project Discovery building schedule has been revised. What was last—redevelopment of the Conservatory-- is now going up next, thanks to a substantial contribution from the city-owned utility Enmax.

Instead of starting construction next year on Arctic Shores, for a 2009 completion, the zoo will begin construction of an $18 million conservatory in 2008 for August 2009 completion.

The Enmax Conservatory will increase the size of the current 43-year-old conservatory by 1,500 feet to 34,000 square feet. It will be powered by alternative energies and promote environmental sustainability.

While Enmax officials are not disclosing the size of the donation--$7 million is rumored—it is enough money to remake the conservatory in the power company’s image.

Five sources of alternative energy are “going to be our public demonstration of this technology so anyone that goes to the zoo can actually see it in action,” says Enmax president and CEO Gary Holden.

Other additions include a learning centre for children, an adult’s teahouse and restaurant and new glazing for the two main greenhouses that will increase their energy efficiency by more than 65 per cent. The new conservatory will also include a much bigger butterfly house, banquet and wedding facilities and a new botanical garden called an ethnobotany garden.

But even a butterfly house generates controversy. Former zoo horticulturist Donna Balzer is objecting to “the ripping apart of a world class conservatory”, throwing away an “unbelievably varied and rare collection of succulents” to build “a high-tech conservatory for weddings”.

The city has pledged $30 million, the province $25 million, for the zoo’s expansion.

To proceed with Arctic Shores the zoo needs the federal government to ante up $40 million.

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