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Construction on zoo's new exhibit to start this spring

Arctic Passage will house polar bears, grizzly bears, seals, restaurant

MADISON, Wis. - Construction of the Arctic Passage exhibit at the Henry Vilas Zoo is set to start in the spring of 2014, according to a release.

The new exhibit is the result of a historic partnership between the county and The Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo, officials said. Dane County plans to award JP Cullen a $9.4 million contract to build the exhibit and indoor restaurant, pending approval by the Dane County Board.

Arctic Passage's improved design brings polar bears back to Madison with a larger habitat and an underwater viewing area that brings people closer to one of the bears, according to the release. The exhibit will also include a new habitat for grizzly bears, complete with a creek that can be stocked with fish, which allows visitors the opportunity to watch a bear capture and eat a fish like bears do in the wild.

"After years of planning, the county is set to break ground on the largest expansion in our free zoo's 102-year history," Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said. "This world-class exhibit will not only enhance one of the region's premiere destinations for families, it will provide important education on the impact climate change has had on the threatened polar bear population and our planet."

Also included in the habitat will be the first indoor dining option at the zoo. The restaurant will seat dozens, and includes a viewing window looking into the polar bear exhibit.

"We couldn't be more excited to be a part of Arctic Passage," Tim Pertzborn of JP Cullen said. "It's an honor to be able to contribute to a project that will have great economic and community impact regionally, in Dane County and in our neighboring Rock County as well."

Thanks to a community fundraising campaign, the Arctic Passage will also include a new exhibit for the zoo's harbor seals, according to the release.

"On the heels of this exciting step forward for the Arctic Passage, we're excited to announce an anonymous $25,000 matching challenge grant to support the project," Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo Executive Director Alison Prange said. "We are asking community members to dig deep and help us match this grant by Jan. 18 to launch the final push to bring the bears back to Madison."

The project is estimated to cost a little over $10.5 million, according to the release. Dane County will fund $4.38 million of the exhibit's design and construction costs. Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo has raised $3.6 million and still needs to raise the remaining $1 million to complete the exhibit. The county will also fund the $1.6 million cost to design and build the indoor dining area.

Additional proceeds raised from dining sales will be allocated to a dedicated Forever Free Fund to allow the zoo to continue to update and expand exhibits, participate in species protection programs, and continue to care for its animal family, according to the release.

To achieve the goals of the exhibit, Parisi announced a $380,000 capital investment from the 2014 county budget, according to the release. The funds will provide an interactive, educational experience for Arctic Passage visitors, with plans to acquire a repurposed Tundra Buggy research vehicle that scientists previously used to study polar bear behavior and evaluate the impacts of climate change.

The investment will also pay for the installation of solar panels and large rainwater collection tanks in the exhibit to build on the sustainability of the zoo by creating energy and water resources for use on zoo grounds, officials said.

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