Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, on shaky financial footing two decades ago, is now a thriving nonprofit organization that is breaking attendance records almost every year.
A marketing campaign targeted potential customers in the Denver and Pueblo areas, and that’s paid off, said zoo CEO Bob Chastain.
“The real market that is growing is Denver,” Chastain said. “We’ve had significant increases in the number of people coming to the zoo from both Denver and Pueblo.”
Chastain has worked at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo for 22 years, and took over as CEO in October 2005. Despite seeing more people come through the gate each year — that’s the zoo’s biggest source of revenue, followed by memberships and food and gifts — Chastain saw a need to alter the formula.
“About four or five years ago we decided that if the increase in attendance was going to continue, we needed to think about other markets,” he said. “We spent a relatively small amount of money for advertising in Denver and got a significant bump.”
He said about 100,000 zoo visitors come from the Denver area annually — roughly 13 percent of the total — an increase of 77 percent in the past five years.
Chastain said the zoo is on track to break last year’s attendance record of nearly 780,000 — which already doubled the total from the year he became CEO.
“Bob’s vision in taking the zoo forward has resulted in great efficiency,” said Hans Mueh, who is vice chair of the zoo’s board of directors. “From ticket packages and memberships, we keep seeing improvement, and we’ve seen growth from Denver and Pueblo. It’s not easy to sustain success with the competition there is for things to do in Colorado and in the Springs. We have to keep striving to make the zoo a place where people want to take their family.”
In March, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was named the sixth-best accredited zoo in the country by USA Today.
Chastain said there are about 2,800 U.S. Department of Agriculture license holders for exotic animals, and about 230 in the accredited Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Of those 230, fewer than 10 are nonprofits governed by a board of community leaders. Being a nonprofit means they receive no local or regional tax support.
“No tax dollars means we control our own destiny,” said Kathy French, the zoo’s vice president of finance and human resources.
Charity Navigator, which calls itself “Your Guide to Intelligent Giving,” rates the zoo at 93.38 out of 100 in the financial category. For accountability and transparency it gets 97, resulting in an overall score of 94.86. The zoo is rated 4 stars out of four in all three categories.
Asked about being a nonprofit, Chastain said, “We don’t want to send our money to shareholders. Our goal is to save animals through conservation.”
Spencer Penrose started the zoo in 1926, and with his wife, Julie, also founded El Pomar Foundation, the Pikes Peak region’s top charitable organization.
Not surprisingly, El Pomar has always been a big supporter of the zoo.
“The total support over the years is $25.5 million,” said El Pomar Executive Vice President Matt Carpenter, who is also an El Pomar trustee.
From 1939 to 2006, El Pomar provided $10 million in operating expenses, about $150,000 a year. Carpenter said it was $100,000 annually from 2004-06 and “as high as $250,000 to $300,000 in the 1970s or ’80s.”
In the mid-1990s, El Pomar informed the zoo it would stop giving operational expenses in 10 years, allowing for a transitional period — although it would still contribute to fundraising campaigns for individual projects.
Tough times ensued into the late 1990s, Chastain said.
“Years would end with a few thousand dollars surplus,” he said. “If not for the operational gifts from El Pomar, it would’ve been hard. I would say it was day to day.”
The zoo learned to operate on its own and Chastain said the relationship with El Pomar remains “nothing but great.”
El Pomar contributed $1.5 million to the latest capital campaign called “Making Waves,” gave the same amount to “Encounter Africa” in 2012 and $1.49 million for “Rocky Mountain Wilderness,” which opened in 2008. The Making Waves campaign is within $221,000 of its goal to raise $10.4 million for a new building to house the penguins, hippos and a few other critters.
The zoo ranks third on the all-time list of El Pomar benefactors behind Colorado College and The Broadmoor World Arena.
“My passion is Making Waves and I’m really excited for the spring of 2019 when it opens,” Mueh said.
Carpenter predicted the new building will be a big hit.
“Every year they complete a capital project, their visitor and membership numbers jump through the roof,” Carpenter said.
In the zoo’s 2016-17 annual report, the net surplus from operations was more than $6 million. The net assets — which include buildings, grounds and animals, French said — was nearly $48 million.
Those numbers are up significantly from the Waldo Canyon fire year of 2012-13 [surplus of $3.3 million and net assets of $38.5 million] and from 10 years ago [surplus of $1.9 million and net assets of $18.7 million].
“What you saw in the previous 10 years [before 2007] was that growth was very flat,” Chastain said. “Growth was about $1 million a year.”
Now, the country’s only mountain zoo is operating at a high level. n CSBJ