May 15, 2010
Matthew LaPlante

The fountain was beautiful. The gift shop was impressive. But when legislative auditors looked at Hogle Zoo’s new $7.7 million entryway in 2002, they were not amused.

In light of deteriorating animal exhibits, the auditors concluded, the pavilion was “a poor business decision.”

Six years later, as Hogle supporters campaigned to convince Salt Lake County voters to pay for $33 million in improvements to the zoo, they stressed bond funds would be used to enhance the well-being of their animals.

But when construction workers tear down the zoo’s 15-year-old Butterfly Gardens building, likely sometime this fall, it won’t be to make space for a new animal exhibit. Instead, the area will be home to “Tembo Terrace,” a food service facility and dining area named for the Swahili word for “elephant.”

And 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.

The donation, from Denver-based Service Systems Associates, pushed the zoo’s private fundraising total over $11 million — the amount it needed to collect in order to unlock the $33 million in public funds, under terms of the voter-approved proposition.

That deal raised the ire of Salt Lake County Councilman David Wilde, who accused the zoo of pay-for-play deal making in order to access the public money. Wilde was again critical on Friday when he learned that the zoo’s next big construction project will be a restaurant. He hears echoes of the entry pavilion controversy in the new project.

But zoo director Craig Dinsmore said that he’s comfortable with the way Hogle has chosen to spend the $44 million in combined public and private money. Good stewardship of the zoo means “taking care of animal needs and people needs over time — you can’t do one without the other,” Dinsmore said.

He said county officials have long been aware of the zoo’s priorities, including the restaurant.

He noted that the language on the ballot — which asked whether money should be granted for “acquiring, improving and renovating facilities” — was “very general” in nature.

And so, he said, he believes Salt Lake County voters were well informed about the zoo’s intentions when they overwhelmingly voted in support of the bond.

Wilde disagrees.

“How it was sold to the council, I believe, and to the public as well, is that all of the money was to be used for the benefit of animals, including the private money,” Wilde said. “I don’t recall anything about a restaurant being discussed.”

The “Frequently Asked Questions” page devoted to the bond proposition on the zoo’s website listed three projects: an Arctic exhibit with polar bears, seals and wolves; an animal health center; and the “first phase” of an African savannah, for animals such as giraffes, rhinos and zebras.

Tembo Terrace has been a part of the zoo’s master plan since at least 2008, according to planning maps created by the Philadelphia-based company CLR Design. But the first time it was publicly identified as part of the zoo’s plan to spend its bond monies was in interlocal agreements with Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City, more than a year after the bond was passed by voters.

In the agreements, which govern how the zoo will share ownership of developments paid for with the bond money, Tembo is listed by name, but without further description. Dinsmore said that other documents reviewed by the county and its debt review committee were more explicit, but said he couldn’t recall whether those documents had been provided for review before or after voters approved the bond initiative.

Hogle received $3.68 million in public funding in 2008, the last year for which the zoo’s Internal Revenue Service filings are publicly available. That doesn’t include money won in the bond election in November of that year. In the same year, the zoo made $3.34 million through tickets sales.

Utah Taxpayers Association Vice President Royce Van Tassell said he doesn’t think the zoo acted in good faith when it approached voters looking for money.

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