Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Tuesday, December 11, 2001
FW Zoo wants to demolish aquarium
By CHRIS VAUGHN
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
(Images added by WhoZoo)
Fort Worth Zoo officials are preparing to tell the city that they plan to demolish the 47-year-old aquarium and build a reptile house on the site.
FORT WORTH - Six months after completing its crown jewel exhibit on Texas wildlife and a decade after switching to private management, the Fort Worth Zoo enters a new phase with plans to close the aquarium and build a new reptile house.
The James R. Record Aquarium and the unnamed herpetarium are the last vestiges of the zoo's distant past. They are the only exhibits in the 60-acre zoo that look the same as they did 10 years ago when the Fort Worth Zoological Association assumed day-to-day operations of the park.
Today, the zoo's top leaders - association President Ardon Moore and zoo Director Michael Fouraker - will update the City Council at the halfway mark of the association's 20-year contract with the city.
In announcing that they would like to tear down the aquarium, they will introduce the concept of a larger off-site aquarium, but only with city help and money. The zoo is city-owned but run by the private zoo association, which took over in 1991.
Zoo leaders have known for several years that something needs to improve the aquarium and herpetarium. The time is now, they said, because of a convergence of serious structural problems, the availability of city bond money and an upcoming accreditation visit by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
"We got 50 years' worth of life out of these buildings," Moore said. "That's more than was expected. Now our job is to think about the next 50 years. Over the next five to 10 years, we will ask the city and ourselves to think about how Fort Worth might build a better, more modern aquarium."
The Fort Worth Zoo, one of the oldest in the state, draws about 1.1 million visitors a year, although that figure has increased about 10 percent to 15 percent since the Texas Wild! exhibit opened in June.
The zoo association has $1.3 million from a 1998 bond package earmarked for repairs to the aquarium and herpetarium. But Moore and Fouraker will ask the City Council to allow them to spend the money building a new herpetarium, rather than continue to repair the aging buildings.
"The aquarium has continued to deteriorate, and it's not fiscally responsible to continue to spend money on it," Fouraker said. "As we start adding up what needs to be done, we can't put a dent in it with the repair money available."
If the plans move ahead, Fouraker anticipates closing the aquarium "pretty quickly" so that staff can distribute the fish and penguins to other zoos. The five people who work in the aquarium, Fouraker said, will be offered other jobs within the zoo.
The current herpetarium would stay open until the new building is complete on the aquarium site, probably in 2004. Fouraker said the zoo can build a 6,500-square-foot herpetarium - about 1,500-square-feet smaller than the current one - for $1.3 million.
A smaller herpetarium would have fewer small tanks and more large, naturalistic tanks, Fouraker said.
"We'll make inquiries about private support, although we just came off a $40 million campaign" for Texas Wild!, Fouraker said. "We know we can do a nice facility with the money that exists."
The aquarium, built in 1954 with $50,000 from Amon G. Carter Sr. and his foundation, was a marvel in its day. It was the sixth-largest aquarium in the nation and drew 500,000 visitors its first year.
Children paid a dime and adults paid 20 cents to see the fish, which swam as most still do today in water drawn from an underground well.
Six years later, zoo officials opened the herpetarium, an extensive collection of reptiles that has fueled the zoo's conservation efforts for decades and continues to be one of the zoo's most popular attractions.
But while the zoo association spent more than $80 million in the past decade to build new exhibits such as World of Primates, Flamingo Bay and Texas Wild!, it spent $1 million in repairs on the aquarium and herpetarium.
"From the public's perspective, they still look pretty good," Fouraker said. "They put on a good appearance. But we have to work hard at it. Every day, we're putting more money into a sieve."
Among the problems Fouraker and Director of Animal Programs Bob Wiese cited:
- The aquarium's plumbing has failed in a number of places, resulting in frequent backups onto the floor and a persistent foul odor near the entrance.
- The building's floor drains have collapsed from settling, which means water has to be pumped onto the roof and into the duck pond.
- The concrete around the tanks leaks frequently because it is failing from constant exposure to water.
- The water filtration system for the penguins is a rust bucket that can no longer be painted and that employees are forbidden to touch because it might spring a leak.
- And the herpetarium has so many cracks and holes that keepers fear a venomous snake could hide forever if he got out of his cage.
Officials from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the accrediting organization for zoos, noted many of those problems in a visit almost five years ago.
The zoo expects another visit early next year and zoo leaders say they do not want to experience what the Dallas Aquarium did this fall - the loss of accreditation. Fouraker said he wants to be able to show AZA officials that a plan is in place to fix the problems.
Plans for a new aquarium, however, remain vague, including potential size, cost and location.
Costs to build a state-of-the-art aquarium run $500 per square foot, money the zoo association says it doesn't have. Nor does the zoo have the space or the parking for an aquarium, meaning one would have to be built somewhere else in the city, zoo officials say.
The number of aquariums has grown substantially in the past 15 years, including major new ones in Denver; Long Beach, Calif.; Tampa, Fla.; and Charleston, S.C.
"Aquariums tend to be very popular with people, and they tend to be self-supporting," Fouraker said. "We think Fort Worth needs one, and we think it's probably something the city should entertain as an idea. But that's about as far as we can go with it for now."
Chris Vaughn, (817) 390-7547