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Watertown Zoo could be in jeopardy

Payne Horning
The New York State Zoo at Thompson Park in Watertown needs immediate financial assistance from the city and Jefferson County to remain open.

Officials from the Thompson Park Zoo in Watertown are asking the city and Jefferson County for more financial support. They say it may be necessary just to keep the zoo open.

Former zoo board member Peter Schmidt says the past ten years have not been easy. The zoo has operated at a loss eight of those years and cycled through six executive directors. That has put needed upgrades and projects on the back burner. Now, Schmidt says, the zoo is at a crossroads.

"It’s certainly the option of the city to give us no support, we can’t deny that," Schmidt said. "But at that point, the ability to continue to operate the zoo will be in jeopardy."

The zoo is requesting nearly $100,000 each from Watertown and Jefferson County. Schmidt says that could finance some immediate infrastructure needs and help create a leadership team.

Watertown and the county already subsidize the zoo to the tune of about $70,000 annually and that does not include service they provide like repairs and utilities. City Manager Sharon Addison says offering any more to the zoo could be difficult because the city may need to raise taxes to cover its own expenses.

"I’m evaluating all of the different department requests and right now, I anticipate we will be over the tax cap," Addison said. 

Schmidt says with extra support the zoo could justify starting a $2 million capital campaign to reinvigorate the facility.

"Two years from now, should we be successful, the concept of going on a capital campaign is very exciting," Schmidt said. "It could get the spark of life back into the zoo the same that we had in 1990 when the zoo was turned over and could sustain the operation for a number of years to come."

Several Watertown councilors say they are open to the idea of helping support the zoo, which they consider a regional asset, but Councilor Mark Walczyk said city officials are doing their best right now to keep taxes down.  

"I think our first fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers is to take care of the basics," Walczyk said. 'That’s police and fire, making sure their streets are paved and that their trash is picked up on time, then we can start to look at the projects - the wants instead of the needs."

The first draft of the Watertown budget will be presented to the council next month.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.