New Children's Zoo Sign

A 21-foot-tall sign greets visitors to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

TED KIRK, Journal Star file photo

Lancaster County leaders likely will approve $5.1 million in grants to support expansion of the Lincoln Children’s Zoo and the Lancaster Event Center.

The money comes from the Visitors Improvement Fund, which collects lodging tax revenue. The county Visitors Promotion Committee approved the two grants June 29.

“We’re faced with two very exciting projects,” said Jeff Maul, executive director of the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The board approved a resolution Thursday supporting a grant to the zoo for $300,000 a year for seven years starting in 2018. The money likely will be used to pay for a pedestrian bridge over A Street as part of a $15 million zoo expansion.

The zoo hopes to break ground in April and increase the zoo’s presence in the Antelope Park Triangle from nine to 14 acres. Work will include renovating the Ager Play Center and building a permanent place for the LPS Science Focus Program and new animal exhibits.

“This is the No. 1 attraction in Lincoln and Lancaster County,” said Commissioner Larry Hudkins.

The board also expressed support for a $3 million grant to the Lancaster Event Center to be distributed over five years starting in 2017 at $250,000 for each of the first two years and then more than $830,000 for each of the next three years.

Amy Dickerson, the event center’s managing director, has said she hopes the $3 million county commitment will convince officials with the National High School Finals Rodeo to hold the event in Lincoln in 2020 and 2021.

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She plans to use the lodging tax money to build a 3,400-seat outdoor grandstand and expand an outdoor multipurpose arena. She also plans to add 550 camping spots to the 200 the center has now.

She said she expects the rodeo to bring 1,650 contestants and their families to Lincoln for 10 days of competition.

The County Board voted to make its grant contingent upon a successful bid to get the rodeo finals.

Dickerson has said the center may not need to use the entire $3 million from the committee should it succeed in getting a bond issue passed that would pay for improvements. She said she hopes to get a bond passed in 2018.

“Let’s build it,” Maul said. “Let’s start the expansion.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJS_Abourezk.

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I'm a Journal Star night editor and father of five.

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