May 18, 2010

A Salt Lake County councilman is criticizing Utah’s Hogle Zoo for plans to build a restaurant with taxpayer bond money.

The zoo will tear down its 15-year-old old Butterfly Gardens building to make way for “Tembo Terrace,” a food service facility and dining area.

Salt Lake County Councilman David Wilde said the promised $44 million zoo makeover should concentrate on animals, not people.

The zoo’s director, Craig Dinsmore, insisted that county officials have long been aware of the restaurant plans.

Good stewardship, he said, means “taking care of animal needs and people needs over time _ you can’t do one without the other.”

The restaurant will be operated by the donor that last year pledged $2.5 million to Hogle as part of a deal to become the zoo’s official concessionaire.

Denver-based Service Systems Associates pushed the zoo’s private fundraising over $11 million _ the amount the zoo needed to raise from private donors in order to tap another $33 million in public funding.

In November 2008, Salt Lake County voters overwhelmingly approved borrowing the $33 million for “acquiring, improving and renovating facilities.” The ballot proposition said nothing about a restaurant. At the time, the zoo’s website said the project would consist of an animal health center, arctic exhibit and the first phase of an African savanna replica.

“All of the money was to be used for the benefit of animals, including the private money,” Wilde contends.

A restaurant was on a master plan since 2008, but it didn’t become a reality until the county and Salt Lake City signed agreements more than a year after voters approved the bond. The pacts govern how the zoo will share ownership of developments paid for with the bond money. Tembo Terrace was listed in the agreements but without any description.

Dinsmore said that other documents reviewed by the county and its debt review committee were more explicit but he couldn’t recall whether those documents were turned over before or after voters approved the bond initiative.

Utah Taxpayers Association Vice President Royce Van Tassell said he doesn’t think the zoo acted in good faith.

“Taxpayers expect their dollars to be spent transparently,” Van Tassell said. “This reeks of back room deals.”