Cagey: Tennessee zoos take $1 million from taxpayers to boost tourism

Cagey: Tennessee zoos take $1 million from taxpayers to boost tourism

The Tennessee Aquarium and the state’s four largest zoos will get $1 million in taxpayer money to lure tourists.

Three of the four zoos — in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville — reportedly set attendance records in 2015. But Tennessee legislators approved the funding for the new fiscal year anyway.

The fourth zoo, in Memphis, is seeing a reported decrease in attendance because of parking issues.

The four zoos and the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga will each get $200,000.

The Tennessee Aquarium (photo courtesy of Flickr.com/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

The Tennessee Aquarium (photo courtesy of Flickr.com/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Aquarium officials will use their money on exhibits for lemurs from Madagascar and tropical fish, aquarium spokesman Thom Benson said.

“As a non-profit organization, this grant allows us to complete an exciting project while relieving our budget for uses in field conservation efforts and educational programs,” Benson said in an email to Tennessee Watchdog.

That field conservation project, The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, will conduct research on Tennessee’s aquatic species. The institute gets most of its money from private donations and conservation grants, Benson said.

The aquarium had 710,000 visitors in 2014, according to its Annual Economic Impact Report.

The Chattanooga Zoo will use its portion on a giraffe exhibit, scheduled to open in 2018, said zoo spokeswoman Hannah Hammon.

The Chattanooga Zoo had 200,000 visitors in 2015, a record number, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE ZOO: Officials at Tennessee's largest zoos say they need more money to boost already strong tourism numbers. (photo courtesy of Flickr.com/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

KNOXVILLE ZOO: Officials at Tennessee’s largest zoos say they need more money to boost already strong tourism numbers. (photo courtesy of Flickr.com/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

The Knoxville Zoo will pay for an outdoor tiger habitat, spokeswoman Tina Rolen said.

The Knoxville Zoo set an attendance record in 2015 with more than 440,000 visitors, according to Knoxville TV affiliate WVLT.

The Knoxville Zoo and the Tennessee Aquarium need the money to lure tourists, say the respective spokespeople.

The aquarium and the Chattanooga and Knoxville zoos have more money set aside in preparation for this year’s fiscal year budget compared to the previous year, each spokesperson said.

The Chattanooga Aquarium gets 80 percent of its revenue from guests, has a $22.5 million budget for this fiscal year and does not generally get money from local, state or federal taxpayers, Benson said.

The Chattanooga Zoo has a $2.4 million budget this year, gets 68 percent of its money from visitors, 30 percent from the city and 2 percent from donations and grants, Hammon said.

The Knoxville Zoo has a $9.6 million budget and receives 86 percent of its money from customers and 14 percent from the city, Rolen said.

Officials with the Nashville and Memphis zoos did not return repeated requests for comment this week.

The Nashville Zoo last year posted record attendance — 834,042, which is 10 percent higher than the previous year, according to the Nashville Post.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org 

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