January 7, 2009
How a fraction of a penny helped to create
Oklahoma’s number one tourist attraction.
By Bob Hammack
Chairperson of the Oklahoma City Zoological Trust
These days a penny does not buy much. On the other hand, a fraction of a penny was the remarkable catalyst for the Oklahoma City Zoo blossoming into the state’s number one tourist attraction. In fact, over the next two years the attendance at our nationally acclaimed zoological park and botanical garden should surpass one million and six hundred thousand visitors.
It is difficult to appraise accurately the full economic benefit that the City of Oklahoma City derives from this remarkable attraction. With millions of visitors over the next few years, it will be substantial. Just as impressive is the stature and national acclaim that our zoo continues to attain. The old zoo, the one from my childhood with its’ W.P.A. era bare rock grotto’s and red dirt exhibits, has been completely expunged. In its place, throughout the spacious one hundred and thirty acre campus are state-of-the-art natural habitats where many of nature’s most magnificent living species are on exhibit.
Today, our zoo hardly resembles the park of just a few decades ago. In addition to an impressive and growing animal collection, The Oklahoma City Zoo is also an accredited botanical garden. It is common for visitors to comment, “This is the most beautiful place in Oklahoma.” Zoo staff publishes a free planting guide because of the constant inquiries from guests about the hundreds of lush plant species on display.
It is also especially rewarding to take someone to the zoo that who grew up in Oklahoma City, and later moved away. Almost without exception, they cannot believe their eyes. Most dimly recall “Monkey Island” or seeing “Judy,” the zoo’s beloved elephant. Pennies donated by city area schoolchildren over half a century ago where central to the purchasing of the young female elephant. Sadly, Judy passed away a few years ago after a long life. It is interesting how pennies have always had a profound impact on our zoo.
The change began in the late 1980’s when visionary leaders at the Oklahoma Zoological Society lead by Don Zachritz, Ron Rosser, Morton Paine, Lee Ann Smith, James Cole, Harry Perry, Phillip Boyle, Byron Gambulos, and Nate Ross conceived the novel idea of a 1/8 of a cent sales tax to provide critical financial support for the zoo. The issue passed overwhelmingly by city voters and put into law on a permanent basis. The society has as a fundamental goal raising funds for the zoo. With the passage of the special sales tax, the transformation of the zoo began.
The Oklahoma Zoological Society is also known as “ZooFriends” a name coined by Patrick Alexander, the organization’s former Executive Director. The non-profit organization has always been fertile breeding ground for ideas, financial aid, and leadership for the zoo. Founded during the 1950’s by John Kirkpatrick, whose family has always been a long-time benefactor of the arts, science, and education in Oklahoma City, today Zoofriends boast a membership numbering just fewer than twenty thousand.
After the passage of the sales tax, the entire landscape of the zoo began to change. The handsome front entrance of the zoo can accommodate thousands of daily visitors. From this central location, visitors have scores of options. Guest can travel east to Aquaticus to enjoy a sea lion show, take a nature class in the multi-purpose Ron Rosser Education Building, or have a nutritious meal at the Canopy restaurant. These things would not have been possible without ZooFriends and the 1/8th penny sales tax.
Visitors can go south to say hello to our young Asian elephants, Asha and Chandra. Beyond the historic pachyderm building is the “Great Escape” with its impressive collection of gorillas, chimpanzees, and Sumatran orangutans. Two magnificent female lions, Bridget and Tia, prowl nearby at the Cat Forrest Lion Overlook exhibit. These things would not have been possible without Zoofriends and the 1/8th penny sales tax.
To the west, young visitors can delight with the spacious new children’s playground, which was made possible through a financial collaboration with The Junior League of Oklahoma City. The dazzling playground is just another reason why our zoo has been recognized by national magazines as one of America’s top three most children friendly zoos. These things would not have been possible without ZooFriends and the 1/8th penny sales tax.
Next spring will herald the opening of the zoo’s latest attraction: The Oklahoma Trails. Buffalo, black bears and Grizzlies, mountain lions, elk, deer, and an impressive collection of other animals indigenous to our state now or in the past, will be on grand display. The exhibit has taken years to design and build and undoubtedly, will be another blockbuster attraction. These things would not have been possible without ZooFriends and the 1/8th penny sales tax.
This robust expansion and unparalleled success is due to the efforts of many. These include ZooFriends members and members of the zoological trust who have volunteered time, energy, expertise, and monetary donations. The extraordinarily talented staff at the zoo led by the energetic Executive Director of the zoo, Bert Castro. A long line of city leaders, who through the years have understood the remarkable value such a world-class attraction, adds to our community.
The income stream provided by the local retail sales guarantees exciting new attractions and continued future success for our zoo. Of course, countless individuals, corporations, and foundations have always played an essential role in the unparalleled the success of the zoo. One recent example of this is the generosity of Oklahoma Centennial Commission. Thanks to the commission, it is again possible for the entire family to embark on a leisurely train excursion through the heart of our superb zoo.
The Oklahoma City Zoo is family-friendly oasis that surveys reveal 99.9% of visitors say they enjoy. The zoo is also a splendid example of how the thoughtful application of pennies, when wisely invested, has paid for itself many times over in tourism dollars. This investment has also greatly enhanced educational and recreational opportunities for our children, and has brought Oklahoma City unbridled national acclaim for numerous notable contributions in animal conservation. An old question asks “A penny for your thoughts.” My thought would be to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, “Seldom has so little done so much for so many.”
Entry Filed under: Editorial. Tags: Zoo.