Buffalo Zoo eyes attendance mark and more funds

September 24, 2013 Updated Sep 24, 2013 at 11:44 AM EDT

By James Fink, Buffalo Business First

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Buffalo Zoo eyes attendance mark and more funds

September 24, 2013 Updated Sep 24, 2013 at 11:44 AM EDT

Baby polar bears Luna and Kali are not only credited for an attendance bump at the Buffalo Zoo, but the cuddly and furry critters are generating a large amount of interest from the construction community.

The zoo is on pace to set a new benchmark for annual attendance, due largely to Luna and Kali and a recently-born baby gorilla, officials expect a larger than normal amount of bidders for demolition and construction contracts related to the Arctic Edge exhibit.

Bids are due by Oct. 8., said Gwen Howard, the project architect with Foit-Albert Associates.

The nearly 40,000-square-foot exhibit, slated to be constructed where the current polar bear pit stands. The new exhibit will be home to the polar bears, bald eagles and various wolf species. It will replace the 1930s-era pit that currently houses the bears.

Central to the new exhibit will be a pair of pools, each about 10-feet deep, where the bears can swim and play. Between the two pools, some 140,000 gallons of water will be stored.

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association is requiring the new exhibit be constructed in order for the zoo keep its accreditation and also maintain the popular bears.

"This zoo needs this project," Howard said. "This community needs this project."

The exhibit is one of the key elements in a $16 million capital project underway at the zoo, including $4 million spent on a recently-completed new entrance. The zoo has raised $14 million of the $16 million it needs for the campaign and is still trying to secure the remaining $2 million.

"Hopefully, the bidding environment will be kind to us," saidDonna Fernandes, zoo president and CEO.

Howard said since the zoo issued its RFP's for the demolition and construction management contracts, she has fielded a lot of calls from would-be bidders including ones from Texas as well as local contractors.

"There is a lot of interest," Howard said.

Zoo officials would like to start the exhibit project later this fall or by early winter and have it completed by mid-2015.

During the construction, the bears are being moved to another exhibit area in the zoo.

Luna and Kali are credited with what Fernandes predicts will be a record year for the zoo, in terms of paid attendance. Through mid-September, the zoo has seen 448,000 people come through its gates and if the trend continues, Fernandes said, it will easily break the 500,000 mark.

Last year, the zoo attracted 456,000 visitors.

"It shows just how important we are to the quality of life in Buffalo," Fernandes said.

Before Fernandes arrived at the zoo in 2000, its annual attendance was in the 320,000 range. Thanks to the development of new exhibits like the M&T Bank Rainforest and Delta-Sonic Heritage Farm, annual attendance is now closer to 450,000 visitors. Of that 35 percent come from outside the immediate Buffalo/Erie County area.

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