Nonprofit’s first decade caps off $30 million in contributions for Minnesota’s most visited cultural attraction
The Campaign for Como, a four-year community-led fundraising effort, has reached its goal, securing more than $8.5 million in private donations for improvements at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, the country’s last completely free metro zoo and botanical garden.
The final gifts, secured in October, will enable Como to break ground on The Japanese Garden Experience, a new wing to the historic Marjorie McNeely Conservatory funded entirely by private contributions. The project will create year-round display space for Como’s nationally regarded Bonsai collection while improving access to The Como Ordway Memorial Japanese Garden, which is ranked among the country’s best examples of sansui-style gardens.
“Achieving the $8.5 million goal is a true testament to the generosity of Como’s community of supporters and the stewardship of Como Friends,” Mayor Chris Coleman said. “Como Park Zoo & Conservatory is a unique asset to the Twin Cities, and Saint Paul’s culture will be richer when the ground breaks on the Japanese Garden Experience wing.”
“The Japanese Gardens Experience is an improvement our visitors will love, but it’s the kind of project Como couldn’t afford to undertake without the leadership of our nonprofit partner Como Friends,” said Michelle Furrer, Como campus manager. “The stewardship of Como Friends has driven a very steady pace of improvements here that have really transformed the way Como serves this community.”
Carrying on a legacy of philanthropy for Como
Over the last century, Como Park Zoo and Conservatory has benefitted from the advocacy of a long series of charities and philanthropic groups, from the Zoo Emergency Group, which fought for Como Zoo’s survival in the 1960s, to the Friends of the Como Conservatory Gardens, which helped to restore the Conservatory, a 1915 glass dome listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Incorporated in 2000, Como Friends (formerly the Como Zoo Conservatory Society) was, in fact, a merger of several smaller nonprofits and docents groups, all with a shared interest in investing in and improving the historic Zoo and Conservatory, which is operated by the City of Saint Paul’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
Since 2001, Como Friends has invested more than $30 million in improvements at Como, including the Visitor Center (opened in 2005), Tropical Encounters (opened in 2006), and Polar Bear Odyssey (opened in 2010). During that time, Como’s education programs have expanded exponentially, reaching more than 500,000 children and adults through summer camps, family classes, and free daily programs such as the Sparky the Sea Lion Show.
“Creating Como Friends was really the first step in the transformation that visitors have seen at Como over the last decade, and it’s a great example of the power of private and public partnerships,” said Como Friends board member Nancy Nelson.
Investment from Como Friends has made it possible to create five seasonal garden shows in the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s Sunken Garden, a tradition that has been abandoned at many botanical gardens across the country. Contributions from the nonprofit have also helped to drive Como Zoo’s adoption of more progressive operant conditioning training for many of the animals in its care, positive reinforcement that visitors can now see in action every day during Polar Bear training sessions at Polar Bear Odyssey.
“Como Friends’ most important influence has probably been in pushing Como to be even better,” said Litton Field, who chaired the volunteer campaign steering committee. “Como is one of the cultural assets that really define the character of the Twin Cities, and the community wants Como to be world-class.”
During the design of Polar Bear Odyssey, Como Friends’ pushed for more than a replacement of the polar bears’ obsolete concrete exhibit, advocating for a state-of-the-art habitat by financing such naturalistic features such the exhibit’s saltwater pools through contributions to the Campaign for Como. As a result of that investment, Polar Bear Odyssey became the first such exhibit in the U.S. achieve the strict “Manitoba Standards” set by the Canadian Polar Bear Protection Act. On its public opening in June 2010, Polar Bear Odyssey also received the “three diamond ranking” from the conservation group Polar Bears International, the first such top designation for a U.S. zoo.
A growing audience with growing needs
Como Friends began the $18.8 million capital campaign in 2007, with the goal of matching the $10.35 million in public funding secured for Polar Bear Odyssey and The Japanese Gardens Experience, with $8.45 million in private contributions. The nonprofit recruited and mobilized a 12 member volunteer steering committee, just as the economy was tumbling into recession.
“The fundraising climate was incredibly challenging when we started,” admits Jackie Sticha, President of Como Friends. “But in some ways the economic pressures on our audience of young families and school groups helped us to make the case that Como serves a very important need in this community, providing a safe and affordable place for families to enjoy, and free access to nonformal education opportunities.”
During the campaign, Como saw its audience surge from 1.7 million visitors in 2007 to 2.2 million in 2010, the largest audience for any cultural institution in the state of Minnesota. Visitor surveys suggested that Como’s free admission was a driving force, with 7 in 10 visitors reporting that Como’s accessibility was “important” or “very important” to their ability to come to Como.
Looking forward to Como’s future
With the project’s full $2.8 million construction costs now secured, groundbreaking for The Japanese Gardens Experience will begin in early 2012. The construction of the new wing and seasonal terrace will coincide with that of Gorilla Forest, an $11 million publicly financed expansion to the Primate Building, to be built with the same conservation and design principles as Polar Bear Odyssey.
With the capital campaign complete, Como Friends will concentrate its efforts on broadening its annual fund support for Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, through private contributions from corporations and foundations, as well as more family-oriented efforts such as membership programs and sponsor-an-animal programs.
Como Friends and Como Park Zoo and Conservatory History and Background
1980-90: A $12 million renovation of the Como Park Conservatory takes place with a combination of state funding and private dollars raised through The Saint Paul Foundation.
1991: Mayor Jim Scheibel and Saint Paul’s City Council appoint a task force to study and recommend a concept for a visitor center at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory.
1994: A project team whose members include Paul Verret, Leonard Wilkening, Jane Clements, Norrine Bohman and Lynne Wolfe develops a work plan to identify issues or barriers to moving forward with a new Visitor Center at Como.
1995: Based on the findings from the project team, Mayor Norm Coleman determines that Como Zoo and Como Park Conservatory will be managed as one campus with one administrative structure. The project team also recommends that one nonprofit organization represent the newly merged zoo and conservatory campus.
1999: The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society is incorporated.
2000: The Como Campus begins operation under one administrative function.
The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society becomes the sole nonprofit supporting the Zoo and Conservatory after the certificate of merger is filed with the Secretary of State.
2000: The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society and City of Saint Paul launch a $32.45 million capital improvement campaign for a new Visitor Center, a new wing of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, a new Tropical Encounters exhibit, a new Animal Support Building, and renovation of the WPA-era Zoological Building.
The Campaign Steering Committee leads the private fund raising campaign. Members include: Bob Bullard (chair), Bob Piram, Tim Ober, Stan Shepard, Barb Bachman, Jo Bailey.
2003: The campaign reaches its $32.45 million goal with $7.91 million secured from the private sector and $24.54 million secured from the public sector.
2005: The Como Visitor Center and the new wing of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory open to the community.
2006: The new Tropical Encounters exhibit opens to the community.
2007: The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society convenes a Study Group to determine community interest in a new capital campaign for a polar bear exhibit and new wing of the Conservatory focused on its Bonsai collection and Japanese Garden.
The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society board approves the findings of the Study Group and agrees to participate in an $18.8 million capital campaign with the City of Saint Paul. $10.35 million is to be raised from the public sector and $$8.45 million is to be raised from the private sector.
The Campaign Steering Committee is recruited and convened to begin work raising the $8.45 million. Committee members include: Litton Field (chair), Jo Bailey, Scott Dongoske, John Huss, Elliot Jaffee, Greg McNeely, Nancy Nelson, Russ Nelson, Tim Ober, Marla Ordway, Kari Rominski and Wendy Rubin.
2008: The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society adopts a new name: “Como Friends.”
2010: Polar Bear Odyssey opens to the community in June.
Capital campaign secures $16.3 million toward $18.8 million goal.
2011: The Campaign for Como reaches goal: $18.80 million secured.
Site work begins on The Japanese Gardens Experience, a new wing to the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory.
Ground breaks on Gorilla Forest, a new exhibit funded 100 % with money from the state of MN.
2017: Pulling together the resources to reimagine Sparky’s new home has been a statewide effort, made possible by $15 million in public funding approved by the Minnesota State Legislature in May 2017. Como Friends, the nonprofit partner of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, raised $5 million for the project through gifts from foundations, corporations and individuals.