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About 46% of people who visit the ABQ BioPark are from outside Albuquerque and often out of state, making the BioPark a regional attraction that brings outside dollars into New Mexico, Shelle Sanchez, director of the city Arts and Culture Department, told a breakfast meeting of the Economic Forum of Albuquerque on Wednesday.
Zoos and aquariums in many similar size cities commonly find that up to 80% of their visitors are local, she said.
Sanchez offered an upbeat post-pandemic update on the BioPark’s economic health and ongoing projects.
Consisting of the zoo, aquarium, botanic garden and Tingley Beach, the BioPark spreads out over 180 acres. It sees on average 1.24 million visitors yearly, making it the most visited attraction in the state, Sanchez said. Of the BioPark’s 300 employees, 77% work in jobs dedicated to animal care. Another 165 people work for the company that operates the concessions. Combined, people who work at the BioPark generate $17 million annually in salaries, she said.
A one-eighth cent gross receipts tax benefitting the BioPark passed by Albuquerque voters in 2016 generates $18 million to $20 million each year and is expected to raise $270 million over the 15 year period the tax is in effect. Those funds, Sanchez said, are helping to build a number of new attractions that are expected to open in the next year or so. These include a visitor shuttle that is designed to look like a train but moves on wheels and connects the different BioPark components; Phase 1 of the zoo’s Australia exhibit; Phase 2 of the Asia exhibit; the botanic garden’s Heritage Farm expansion; and a rail train loop between the farm and the botanic garden.
When the Penguin Chill exhibit opened in July 2019, the BioPark recorded a 41% spike in attendance, Sanchez said. Although that spike was not fully sustained over time, it shows that people respond to new BioPark attractions. Based on that, Sanchez said she expects zoo visits to increase to 1.75 million to 2 million a year as the new exhibits and features debut.
“The BioPark is a cherished cultural space, a place of gathering, a place of education, a place of learning and connection, and we have to continue investing in it and making it better everyday for the people who visit and for the animals we care for,” Sanchez said.
Also addressing the breakfast meeting was Bob Lee, the BioPark’s associate director, who said that there are just over 2,000 facilities in the United States that have USDA permits to exhibit animals. Only 10% of them, about 200, are also accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which establishes the highest industry standards for facilities that care for animals. The BioPark Zoo is reaccredited every five years after a multi-day inspection by AZA officials, Lee said, and the zoo has maintained AZA accreditation for more than 30 years.
The BioPark is also actively involved in conservation efforts through research, AZA species survival plans, and collaboration with other countries.
One such project, unknown to most people, is the BioPark’s Aquatic Conservation Facility’s artificial stream, “where minnows learn how to eat on their own before being released into the river,” Lee said.
One goal of the BioPark, “is to bring these back-of-the-house activities and all of the conservation work that we do for so many species, out to the front, so people know it’s there and they can see it and really get a different connection to the natural world,” he said.