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October 9, 2015

Lowry Park Zoo Moves On Despite Controversy

Art Levy | 1/1/2009

The zoo’s $4.5-million, 17,000-sq.-ft. Safari Lodge opened in December amid controversy surrounding Lex Salisbury.
Lex Salisbury, the longtime leader of Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, gets a lot of the credit for helping the zoo evolve from one of the worst in the nation 20 years ago to one of the best. But Salisbury, embroiled in controversy over his business dealings between Lowry Park and his own private Safari Wild animal park in Polk County, has been noticeably uninvolved as the zoo implements an ambitious plan to diversify its revenue streams. His absence, however, hasn’t disrupted the zoo’s plans.

“As an organization, we have a clear sense of where we’re going and the financial responsibilities to get us there,” says Craig Pugh, the zoo’s deputy director. “Our plans for the future are indelible.”

The centerpiece of the zoo’s aim to generate more revenue is Safari Lodge, an events facility that opened last month within the zoo’s 11-acre Safari Africa habitat. Adjacent to giraffes, zebras, elephants and other animals, the lodge is intended to attract business meetings, lectures, conventions, weddings and other events. Designed to look like a conglomeration of Colonial and Moorish buildings found in a South African village, the lodge can host events for up to 1,000 people.

Even before construction was completed, the lodge was booked for many weekends, particularly this month for Super Bowl-related events. This year, zoo officials are expecting the lodge will spur a significant boost in the nearly $5 million it earns each year from food, beverage and gifts sales. “We were losing food and beverage business because we did not have a climate-controlled facility,” Pugh says. “Safari Lodge should enable us to keep our balanced budget of roughly $20 million.”

Salisbury, meanwhile, continues to deal with accusations that he transferred animals back and forth between the zoo and his own private animal park near Lakeland. Salisbury’s membership in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has been suspected, and his Safari Wild attraction appears to be in trouble, as well. Safari Wild has had difficulties getting permits from Polk County and also faces fines from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which says Salisbury and his business partner, St. Petersburg veterinarian Stephan Wehrmann, ignored environmental regulations while developing the park.

Tags: Dining & Travel, Southwest, Education

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