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Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo expects $29 million revenue shortfall this year

Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo expects $29 million revenue shortfall this year

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An elephant at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium in Omaha on Sunday. It was the first weekend the zoo was open to guests since closing amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus hasn’t had much of an effect on the Omaha zoo’s animals, but the people who care for them are feeling the stress of an anticipated loss of $29 million through the end of the year.

COVID-19 closed the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium to the public from March 16 through June 1, and it reopened with significant restrictions. Revenue is increasing, according to Dennis Pate, the executive director and CEO of Omaha’s zoo, but with the zoo’s busiest season coming to a close, making up millions in lost revenue will be difficult.

Nearly all part-time staff were let go in March, Pate said. Since then, the zoo has had another round of layoffs affecting about 10% of the staff. There have also been salary reductions.

The zoo’s plant conservation department has been the only department to be fully closed.

“If you come to the zoo, I think you’ll think that the grounds are great, and you’ll still see all the animals that you’re used to seeing,” Pate said. “What is now missing are all the keeper talks, volunteers and education staff. That’s all gone for now.”

Pate said he doesn’t typically talk about money because the zoo is ultimately focused on education and conservation.

“It’s a little painful for me to talk about just generating revenue to pay the staff and so on,” Pate said. “Really, this is the place people come to learn about animals.”

It was early April when zoo officials realized how seriously the zoo would be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic hit.

“Early April, we thought, ‘Well, this is really serious, we’re gonna see if we can’t cut our budget (based on a projected) 50% loss of revenue by the end of the year.’ That ended up being too rosy,” Pate said.

Even though the zoo reopened in June, it took in just 30% of projected revenue for the month. There was a slight uptick in July, with the zoo taking in 39% of projected revenue. The first few days of August saw an increase to 61% of projected revenue.

Unfortunately, Pate said, 61% of revenue in August is very different from a similar percentage in July because many more people typically visit in July, so in terms of revenue, it’s less.

The Omaha zoo is not alone in its financial struggles. More than 90% of the 240 zoos in North America accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums closed to the public in March.

Because many zoos employ more than 500 people, they didn’t qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program or the first round of the Main Street Lending Program.

On March 18, the zoo association partnered with several other associations and museums to send a joint letter to Congress requesting $4 billion in relief funding.

On July 13, nine organizations sent another joint letter to House and Senate leadership calling for the support of zoos, aquariums and museums.

The letter stated that the nation’s museum community, which includes aquariums, zoos and science and technology centers, “is facing an existential threat from the closures required to address the COVID-19 pandemic.”

According to an American Alliance of Museums survey, nearly 20% of museums face a significant risk of closing permanently.

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A visitor watches a bongo at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium on Thursday.

LILY SMITH/THE WORLD-HERALD

Besides the loss in conservation efforts and education, there’s also the economic impact of zoos to consider, Pate said.

Omaha’s zoo has an economic impact of more than $200 million annually. About 30% of the visitors in recent years have come from out of state, which brings money into Nebraska, Pate said.

The Omaha zoo is getting some support from its Emergency Support Fund, through which about $3.2 million has been raised so far. The fund was established to assist with revenue lost during the pandemic.

Even with fundraising, zoo officials project to be in the red by the end of the year. The zoo might have to seek a loan from a local bank to cover the shortfall, Pate said.

“Even if we closed our doors, we have so many fixed costs,” Pate said, including caring for the animals, paying maintenance staff and for veterinary and horticulture staff.

Officials estimated that, even if the zoo stayed closed to the public for a year, it would still have $15 million in fixed costs.

Pate said visitors might see construction projects and new exhibits like the soon-to-open $26 million sea lion exhibit and “it might seem like we don’t need the money.”

“Sometimes people don’t understand that we have restricted money just for those projects that’s been donated and we can’t use for anything else,” he said.

Besides donating through the Emergency Support Fund, Pate said the best way to support the zoo is to visit.

Guests can make a reservation for a time to enter the zoo up to three days in advance at omahazoo.com/hours-and-admission.

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