Regional leaders moved forward Tuesday with a plan to spend nearly $6 million on improving the Oregon Zoo's Asian elephant program.
The Metro Council unanimously supported two resolutions at its last meeting of the year, authorizing $4.9 million in spending to offset increased projections for reconstruction of the elephant exhibit at the Oregon Zoo in Washington Park.
That support came a week after councilors were briefed on the increased costs, which were attributed by zoo staff to geotechnical challenges at the hilly zoo site. The projected cost of the elephant exhibit-related projects increased from $30.9 million to nearly $44 million.
Zoo officials came back with a budget that trimmed part of the expansion plans and asked for a revised plan to spend $34.8 million on the projects, using a one-time premium on bond sales to fund the cost increase.
But councilors told zoo staff to write in another $1 million in spending, increasing the cost of the project to $35.8 million.
Zoo director Kim Smith said the revised proposal added more exhibit space to Forest Hall so visitors could see the elephants during inclement weather or when they're kept inside. It also added back in a chute for elephants walking in their new zoo exhibit.
The council also authorized nearly $1 million in bond spending to buy the former Roslyn Lake near Sandy from Portland General Electric, which drained the reservoir in 2008. That 240-acre site could become home of an off-site elephant center.
The off-site center proposal drew some concern from residents worried about the well being of zoo elephants and Roslyn Lake neighbors.
Tony Deis is the founder of Trackers Earth, an organization that bought a campground next to the lake bed.
"I would love for the community to know a little bit more about this," he said, saying he just heard about the proposal on Monday.
Oregon Zoo officials said they're optimistic about the site, which Smith referred to as a "blank slate" that could have a variety of environments for elephants to live in. The area would give the zoo room to expand its breeding program.
But some activists said they thought the off-site center should be a home for the zoo's existing herd to roam, not so the zoo could expand its herd.
"Take that money and use it to transport the elephants to a true place where elephants can be elephants, to a sanctuary," said Courtney Scott.
But Councilor Rex Burkholder said the off-site elephant center would mark a continued step forward in elephant care.
"People care about the elephants," he said. "They don't just want to come and see an animal on display, they want to see animals living good lives."