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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 24, 2010

Delay means Honolulu Zoo entrance will cost $402,000 more


By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The new entrance to the Honolulu Zoo will have a larger gift shop.

Rendering courtesy the Honolulu Zoo

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The city is paying $402,000 more than planned for a new Honolulu Zoo entrance in part to compensate the job's contractor for a three-year delay.

Construction on the $2.75 million entrance started in October and is expected to take about a year to complete.

The contract was originally awarded to Okada Trucking Co. in December 2004. The city disclosed last month that it awarded the company an added $402,000 based on a 1,123-day construction delay. That equates to an average cost of $358 for each day of delay.

Sidney Quintal, director of city Department of Enterprise Services, which operates the zoo, blamed the delay on a decision by prior Mayor Jeremy Harris' adminstration to prematurely award the construction contract.

"This is one of those projects that we inherited," he said. "The previous administration in their remaining term, knowing there was going to be a transition, they jammed everything they could. In this particular case, they didn't do their homework."

Harris could not be reached for comment late last week.

REASONS FOR DELAY

According to the city, the project was delayed partly because of concerns from the Kapi'olani Park Preservation Society that the project called for the demolition of the current entrance and encroached on park land. The current zoo entrance is a low-rise structure designed by the late architect Alfred Preis, who also designed the Arizona Memorial.

Current plans call for the old entrance to be preserved and converted into a visitors center. The zoo's new entrance will feature a larger gift shop 'ewa of the current entrance.

The zoo entrance project has been under consideration for more than a decade and it's not the only zoo project that's bogged down.

The city also has been planning to build an expanded elephant exhibit for years. Earlier this month, an animal rights group claimed that the zoo's two elephants are being mistreated, in part because the city hasn't followed through on a decade-old promise to build a larger elephant enclosure.

Quintal said that delay was caused by a redesign of the planned elephant exhibit to lower project costs. He blamed Harris for "having champagne tastes on a beer budget." For example, prior plans called for an elaborate moat surrounding the exhibit. That idea was scrapped in favor of an elephant-proof fence, Quintal said.

The project also was delayed because of difficulties encountered in disposing of elephant dung, Quintal said. A consultant is expected to submit plans to city in early February and a call for bids is planned for mid-April.

MORE VISITORS

The hope is that a more visible entrance facing Waikk as well as other upgrades such as the elephant exhibit will generate greater attendance, which could help reduce the facility's city subsidy.

The zoo generates about $2 million in revenues a year, but costs about $5.3 million to operate, according to city budget documents. Annual attendance has ranged between 500,000 and 600,000 during the past decade.

City Councilman Charles Djou, who represents the Waikk district, said the city can better leverage the facility and reiterated a call for turning over management of the 42-acre zoo to a private entity. Contract delays highlight how zoo management has lost focus, he said.

Several Mainland cities including Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Little Rock, Ark., are considering privatizing their zoos to deal with budget deficits created by economy-induced tax revenue shortfalls. Last year, the Dallas Zoo went private in a deal expected to save that city $16 million over five years.

GOING PRIVATE

Privatization can save money by shifting employees off city payrolls and instilling entrepreneurial spirit , Djou said.

"You can take staff off of civil service and that, in and of itself, saves. On the revenue side you can be more creative. I think by privatizing it and freeing up the resources at the zoo you can lower costs and increase revenues.

"It has tremendous opportunity to be so much more," Djou said.

Privatization of the Honolulu Zoo, which employs about 80 people, was an initiative of Harris' administration. But the effort has not been pursued by current Mayor Mufi Hannemann. Zoo director Stephen Walker declined to comment on the issue.

Quintal said privatization was considered, but that local private agencies are insufficiently capitalized to take over zoo management expenses as well as capital improvements driven by trends to increasingly display animals in costly native habitats.

"That costs money," Quintal said. "The city was willing to subsidize it to a certain degree, but the whole reason for transition was to reduce the cost of government and get a better product. It couldn't fit. For that reason, we pulled back."

During the past year, the city raised zoo parking rates and entrance fees but the facility is still a drag on the city's budget. Quintal said the benefits of the zoo outweigh the costs, but are sometimes difficult to quantify.

"It's an intangible," he said. "You cannot put a price on education and conservation and being able to have ambassadors of their species represented there and properly cared for."

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