After years of dreaming, designing and digging, Como Park Zoo and Conservatory’s new seals and sea lions habitat is getting set to open to the public on June 3. While social distancing protocols and Como’s current reservation-only system may make for a re-envisioned grand opening, there’s still plenty to celebrate about this $21 million habitat improvement.
“When Minnesotans get their first chance to see this new habitat, we hope they are proud of Como Harbor. The new habitat was made possible through a public/private partnership. Minnesota’s legislators approved $15 million in public funding for this long-awaited improvement; individuals, corporations and foundations were inspired to contribute $4.5 million; and Lancer Hospitality—the restaurant partner at Como—contributed $1.5 million for the new Pier 56 restaurant.” —Jackie Sticha, president of Como Friends
Thanks to a combination of private donations and public funding, Como Harbor is a state-of-the-art habitat that has transformed the heart of Como Zoo. The new habitat has temperature-controlled salt-water pools that allow seals and sea lions to swim outdoors year-round—just as they would in the wild. The immersive and naturalistic design of the habitat features rocky outcroppings that reflect the Pacific coast, with a newly shaded amphitheater and underwater viewing area that give visitors close-up views of all three species that will call Como Harbor home. Behind the scenes, expanded animal care stations and underwater transfer areas will allow animals to swim in and out of every corner of Como Harbor, while providing multiple locations where zookeepers can provide specialized care for Como’s California sea lions, harbor seals and Atlantic gray seals.
While the historic Como Zoo and the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory are two of St. Paul’s most beloved cultural treasures, only 16 percent of Como’s average 1.7 million annual visitors come from the Capital City. “An even larger number of visitors, more than 400,000 every year, are actually from greater Minnesota, and 15 percent come from outside the state,” says Michelle Furrer, Como’s Campus Director. “The sheer number of visitors to Como makes clear that we’re an important part of the tourism economy.” In fact, a 2015 study from Sapphire Consulting found that Como annually generates more than $162.7 million in economic impact for our region, along with nearly 2,100 jobs.
Just as important to Minnesota lawmakers, says Furrer, was the strong public/private partnership between Como Friends and Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. “Seeking state funding is a competitive process because there are so many needs across the state,” she says. “Having a strong track record of success working with Como Friends to build improvements like Polar Bear Odyssey and The Ordway Gardens definitely strengthened our case. It showed legislators that we had the community support behind us to leverage additional dollars to achieve our goals with Como Harbor.”
“We’re so proud of what our supporters have made possible in Como Harbor,” says Jackie Sticha. “Generous philanthropic gifts and public funding mean that transformational improvements are possible at Como without compromising our commitment to free admission and barrier-free access for everyone.”