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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011 01:29 pm

Zoo master plan moving along

Committee aims for October release

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Gombo, a white handed gibbon, hangs out in his enclosure. Earlier this year, the Henson Robinson Zoo unveiled a new logo, pictured here.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Results are in, and the survey says Henson Robinson Zoo is both a gem and a challenge yet to be met.

As part of an effort to revitalize Springfield’s 41-year-old zoo, volunteers representing the park district, the general public and the zoo itself have gathered regularly for the past several months to work on what will eventually become the facility’s new master plan. The zoo’s last master plan was published in 1988 and has never been updated.

“The current master plan for the zoo is well outdated,” says Mike Stratton, Springfield Park District executive director. “Most of the plan components have been completed or evaluated or could not be completed because of topography or funding issues.”

The current effort is led by facilitators Tiffany Yates, president of development consulting service StrengthsNET, Inc., and Dalitso Sulamoyo, president of the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies. The two were selected by the Springfield Park Board in February and are being paid a total of $10,000 for their work.

As part of the planning process, the committee surveyed zoo visitors and members for opinions that will help direct the master plan. While some comments addressed minor issues – too salty hot dogs, for instance – others addressed the animals themselves, with some visitors urging a regional theme as others asked for exotic lions and tigers. Either way, about 68 percent said the zoo needs more animals and many suggested the zoo better publicize feeding times for visitors to watch.

Where educational value is concerned, about 20 percent of surveyed visitors said the zoo is doing a “perfect” job, 14 percent said it needs improvement and about 66 percent gave it “average” marks. To help boost that aspect, which is one of the zoo’s primary missions, the master plan committee is looking at ways to create more interactive exhibits – like a fur-guessing station or touchable skulls – as well as develop better partnerships with local educational institutions and zoo volunteers.

Assistant zoo director Jackie Peeler says the zoo’s one-person educational staff is already stretched thin, but Stratton says the facility can better tap into its highly educated workforce that already exists.

“What about the possibility of utilizing the staff we currently have?” Stratton asks. He says Henson Robinson Zoo has one of the most educated workforces in the Springfield Park District, as all zookeepers possess at least a bachelor’s degree in a related field. “Some may be very interested in wanting to assist or cross train in education things to help us get to that comfortable staffing level.”

The committee is also discussing conceptual ideas for expanding facilities to different degrees, including better utilizing the north corner of the zoo grounds, which is wooded and sloping. Architect Bruce Ferry says exhibits accessed by an elevated walkway or an amphitheatre built into the side of the hill, for examples, would “both compliment and fit in to the topography and vegetation.”

The committee has discussed approaching City Water, Light and Power about using part of its Center Park, across the street from the zoo entrance, for additional parking, but Stratton says the district must be cautious about expanding in size.

“We have to be very careful about increasing our overall maintenance area – that increases the operation cost,” he says.

The next step for the committee is analyzing what resources the zoo has and what it will need to implement the final version of the new master plan. Facilitators originally expected the plan to be complete this past July but are now aiming for an October release date.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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