Red Panda Cubs

Twin red panda cubs are being hand raised at the Lincoln Children's Zoo.

KRISTIN STREFF/Lincoln Journal Star

Nebraska zoos — including the state's top tourist attraction — would be exempt from state sales tax under an Omaha senator's proposal.

The move would apply to admission fees, food and gift shop sales, as well as purchases made by the zoos themselves.

It would benefit four zoos: Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium; the Lincoln Children's Zoo; the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari near Ashland; and the Riverside Discovery Center in Scottsbluff. Each is accredited by the international Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The bill (LB419), introduced by Sen. Heath Mello, already has the support of more than a quarter of the Nebraska Legislature. Thirteen senators from across the state have signed on to support it.

But any effort to carve out an additional tax exemption could be challenging as lawmakers and the new governor zero in on lowering property taxes this year.

"We're hopeful, because we think this fits very nicely with public-private partnership," said Dennis Pate, director and CEO of the Omaha zoo.

The effort was initiated last year by members of the Omaha Zoological Society, which operates the Henry Doorly Zoo.

Supporters met with Gov. Pete Ricketts before his inauguration, and left with the goal of showing "a real business case" for the change. 

"(Ricketts) loves the zoo," Pate said. "His kids come to the zoo. So he certainly understands the importance of the zoo to the state's economy."

The Henry Doorly Zoo, ranked No. 1 in the world last year by travel website TripAdvisor, attracted more than 1.6 million visitors in 2013, nearly a quarter of whom came from outside the Omaha metro area and its surrounding counties.

The zoo also had an economic impact of $111.7 million on the state that year, according to a study by Eric Thompson, an economist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

And last year, the zoo broke ground on the biggest project in its history: a $73 million African Grasslands habitat for elephants, giraffes, lions and other species. The first of those exhibits should open in early summer 2016.

Zoos are directly responsible for about $2 million worth of state sales taxes paid in Nebraska each year, not including "highly variable" amounts for new construction, Pate said.

Mello's proposal would take that money off the table, but Pate said it would benefit other areas.

"We're looking at it as an opportunity to partner with the state to increase tourism in Nebraska," he said. "(There is) a real business case to be made for this."

Mello said his bill "is a way for the state of Nebraska to partner with local communities that support our statewide nationally accredited zoos and aquariums and the economic and intrinsic value they provide.”

The Lincoln zoo's footprint is smaller than Omaha's geographically, economically and in terms of total visitors, drawing some 200,000 people last year and bringing $6.5 million to the community, according to John Chapo, the executive director.

Still, he said, "we are an economic driver in our community."

Mello's bill would "better empower the zoo to execute its mission," he said.

"It's not cheap running a zoo," Chapo said. "We buy lots of animal food to feed 350 animals. We buy lots of material to remodel the zoo, improve the zoo, take care of the physical facility."

The city owns the zoo, but the zoo organization is in charge of its own upkeep and operation.

"We receive no tax dollars of support," Chapo said. "It's all because of the private sector."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com. On Twitter @zachamiLJS.

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Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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