Toronto Zoo seeks $5 million loan from city for ‘outdoor lighting experience’

Toronto Zoo seeks $5 million loan from city for ‘outdoor lighting experience’
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In a two-page report heading to Mayor John Tory’s executive committee on March 21, zoo officials say the want to put on a “seasonal outdoor lighting experience” starting in December, but need $5 million to finance the contract to design, stage and install the special exhibit.

Montreal-based Moment Factory has produced multimedia light shows in several cities in Canada and overseas.  (Bruno Destombes / Moment Factory)

This is not the first time the zoo has pitched a special attraction to counteract a trend of falling attendance and revenues.

The exhibit, the zoo reported, will see a profit of at least $300,000 and as much as $1.85 million over a three-year period after debt and other repayments. The “most likely” attendance scenario would see $1.16 million in profits, zoo officials wrote.

Speaking to the Star on Thursday, CEO Dolf DeJong said the most likely scenario has since been revised to about $800,000 to $900,000 in profit.

He said they’ve estimated “hundreds of thousands of people” would make their way through the more than one-kilometre guided tour, lasting 45 to 60 minutes, over three years, but said he’s hesitant to provide specifics ahead of the business case being finalized — something he said he’s hopeful will be available at committee next week.

“We’re asking for a repayable loan,” DeJong said. “We believe in this and we think this is key to helping the zoo grow both its profile, but its revenue as well. It’s not a grant. It’s not regular operating.”

What exactly the light show, a series known as “Lumina” created by the Montreal-based Moment Factory Inc., would look like at the zoo is unclear. There were few details in the report to executive committee.

Moment Factory opened Forest Lumina in Coaticook, Que. in 2014. Today, the 2.6-kilometre “multimedia pathway” costs $19.50 per adult and $11.50 for kids. Similar exhibits now exist in five other Canadian cities as well as overseas, coined as “enchanted night walks” on Moment Factory’s website. A video shows large moving animations projected on rocks, trees, screens and other surfaces that can be manipulated by, for example, children jumping up and down on a platform as well as glow-in-the-dark face painting as part of the experience.

The zoo started a bid process in October for a light exhibit, with its board of management awarding the contract to Moment Factory in February.

The cost of the contract was not included in the zoo’s $53.1-million operating budget request for 2019, which was approved by council on March 7.

The exhibit will be designed to attract visitors to the zoo in the off-season, the report says, and will promote conservation awareness.

“Guests are led through the experience as they ‘travel forward in time’ to learn how to ‘enact positive change and improve how we share the earth with other creatures,’” according to the report. It says the show will include “immersive illuminations” and “interactive displays.” The report says the show will be significant enough to draw visitors to the sprawling east Scarborough property.

DeJong said they are looking at a cost range of as little as $15 per child and $25 per adult, which would include parking.

Tory’s office said he is reviewing the zoo’s proposal and has asked the city’s finance staff to provide an analysis for the meeting next week.

Attendance at the Toronto Zoo has been falling since 2008, according to an earlier Star analysis. As a non-profit city agency, the zoo is substantially subsidized by taxpayers, receiving $12.5 million — or 24 per cent — of its operating funds from property taxes this year.

There were 179,181 fewer visitors in 2018 than budgeted for, according to the latest attendance report presented to the board of management, resulting in $5.76 million less revenue than planned and $1.35 million less than in 2017.

Despite “significant” efforts to boost attendance, zoo officials reported in February, factors like “poor weather” were blamed for the slowing number of visitors last year.

When the two baby panda cubs went on display in 2016 — which received much media attention — attendance spiked, leading to $15.42 million from ticket sale revenues. That revenue fell to $13.02 million in 2017. Last year, ticket sales brought in $12.02 million.
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