Wheaton's Cosley Zoo will raise admission fees for out-of-town visitors beginning in January.
Park district commissioners voted 5-1 this week to boost fees to $5 for adults and $4 for seniors who don't live in the district. That's a $2 increase for both groups.
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Cosley will continue to offer free admission for Wheaton residents and all children.
The zoo began charging admission for out-of-town adults in 2010 for the first time in decades.
Supporters say the fee increases are appropriate after a series of improvements to the 5-acre zoo at Gary Avenue and Jewell Road, including a new bobcat exhibit funded by the Cosley Foundation and a state matching grant. Unveiled in September, the enclosure marked the zoo's first new wildlife exhibit since the late 1990s.
Without the additional charges, zoo officials say the facility would face a steeper deficit. Cosley already is projected to finish 2012 with an estimated $28,000 deficit, down from a $57,000 shortfall in 2011.
But Commissioner Phil Luetkehans, who opposed the new fees, raised concerns about their possible impact on attendance. Zoo Director Susan Wahlgren said her staff did not conduct a formal market survey.
"I've always been for sustainability of this project," Luetkehans said. "I've always been 'yes,' we should charge somewhat, but I think we're just saying, 'OK, let's do $2,' and we don't know what the effect is going to be."
If the increases turn off potential visitors, board President John Kelly said he would consider scaling them back. He also said he would oppose annual fee hikes.
The new fees are expected to generate roughly $75,000 annually. Officials estimate 74 percent of the zoo's roughly 114,000 visitors from March to November 2011 came from outside Wheaton.
Staff members asked to bump up the cost of admission for several reasons. For one, the zoo's fees lag behind other similar small, accredited zoos. For another, the Cosley Foundation, the zoo's fundraising arm, is slashing support of the zoo's operating expenses by $50,000 for 2013.
Park district Executive Director Mike Benard said the nonprofit organization has assisted with operating expenses over the past several years, but that support was never meant to be permanent.
"The primary reason for the existence of the foundation is to raise money for capital improvements (and) exhibit development," he said.
Wahlgren said Friday the zoo is not losing money from the foundation.
"It's just being put back to other projects instead of through operations," Wahlgren said. "Their function is to raise money for capital projects. They were just kind of helping us out as we were becoming a little more sustainable and efficient."
Still, the move "puts a little more burden on us for operations," Wahlgren said.
The director said admission fees are the zoo's second largest source of revenue after tax support.
"We're still trying to honor the taxpayers of Wheaton by not charging them," she said.