Kansas City Zoo receives final approval to build $75 million aquarium


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Zoo received final approval to build a new $75 million aquarium Tuesday from the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Board.

That aquarium could bring in everything from sharks to seahorses. It’s going to be on the main path as you enter right before you get to the elephants. 

Executive Director Randy Wisthoff addressed the elephant in the room: the price tag for the zoo’s most expensive project in its history in the midst of a pandemic that has crippled attendance at many entertainment venues. 

The COVID-19 crisis also complicated fundraising efforts and slowed the process down a bit after Kansas City pledged $7 million toward the project in 2018. The rest was to be funded by a 1/8-cent sales tax that Jackson and Clay County residents have been paying since 2011 and private donations.

Then came coronavirus. 

“There’s just so many social needs and health needs right now that we just sort of took a step back and took a pause on serious capital fundraising,” Wisthoff said. 

Right now, sea life lovers visiting the zoo only have a handful of small tanks to enjoy.

“You can’t get much farther away from the ocean than Kansas City so having a major league aquarium at the zoo has a number of plusses,” Wisthoff said. 

“You get so much from pictures, but actually seeing them and seeing their colonies and the different types of fish and different habitats is really good,” Hope Archer, a zoo visitor, said Tuesday.

Friends of the Zoo, the zoo’s operator, plans 600,000 gallons of tanks in a 60,000-square-foot building with 30-35 exhibits featuring marine animals from around the world.

Like most aquariums, it will be indoors. But Wisthoff said places focused on “edutainment” have to focus on the future, while learning from the present.

“Yes there’s a strong possibility something like COVID will happen again. But going through this one, we now have an operating plan, and we are just hoping these things don’t happen too frequently,” he said.

As long as they can secure the rest of those private donations, the plan would be to begin construction early next year and open by June 2023. 

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