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Riverbanks Zoo officials started discussing plans for major upgrades 18 months ago, but they pulled the proposals when the economy tanked.

They have decided to test the waters again, with a proposal that could cost as much as $40 million if Richland and Lexington county councils agree to commit tax dollars to it. Satch Krantz, executive director of the zoo, discussed the tentative details Wednesday.

What new animals would people see?

Most of the new species would be in a proposed Asian complex. Orangutans, Amur leopards, tapirs, red pandas, Komodo dragons and babirusas (a four-tusk Asian pig) are on the wish list. "When we ask people what they'd like to see, orangutans are always at the top of the list," Krantz said.

Riverbanks has had Amur leopard and tapir exhibits at various times, but it never has had orangutans. Fruit bats and pythons are other Asian possibilities.

The other major animal exhibit in the new plan would bring back sea lions. The outdated sea lion exhibit closed in May.

Why does Riverbanks currently have few Asian animals?

"When the zoo first opened, we had a much more representative sample of animals from around the world," Krantz said. "Then, through the years, we made a decision to concentrate on African species. That's what people wanted to see - the elephants, the gorillas, the giraffes. Now we have an opportunity to do something really special with Asian animals."

Where would the Asian exhibit be located?

Initial plans put the exhibit in a corridor shaped like the number 7, with the current lion and tiger exhibits as the base, the siamang island and snack bar in the middle and a wooded area currently used in part for horseback rides as the top. Tigers and siamangs are Asian. The zoo would find a new home for its African lions near the Ndoki Forest exhibit of African animals.

Where would the new sea lion exhibit be?

The exhibit would be just inside the main entrance, probably replacing the current lemur exhibit. The pool would be smaller than the old one, but the sea lion collection could be larger, possibly eight to 10. A see-through wall would make it easier to watch the sea lions frolic.

"Back in 1999, we said, 'It's a shame we can't put sea lions there,'" Krantz said. But they couldn't fit such a major move in the budget for the last zoo expansion, which included new gorilla and elephant exhibits and a new bird house.

The plan calls for a Children's Garden. What's that?

Children's gardens are a new phenomenon in the botanical garden world - a child-oriented area with climbing structures, whimsical play houses and low-key water features. Botanical gardens often appeal mainly to adults, but they can draw more young people by adding children's sections.

This would be the only addition outside the current public footprint at Riverbanks. It would be in a two-acre section to the right after visitors cross the botanical garden entrance bridge.

A renovated entrance is planned. What's wrong with the old one?

It was built in 1987 and designed to handle annual attendance of about 450,000. Riverbanks has averaged closer to 1 million visitors per year in the past decade, and the number of ticket booths can't handle demand on busy spring break days or for night events such as Lights Before Christmas and Boo at the Zoo. The ticket lines at the Boo event last year stretched back about 100 yards.

When will construction begin?

That depends on whether Richland and Lexington county councils agree to the proposal (which would add about $4 annually to the taxes paid on a $100,000 house). Officially, the zoo hasn't requested construction bonds. The zoo hustled to put together a presentation after Lexington County officials requested one this week before a planning retreat. Krantz still has to meet with Richland County officials.

The designing and planning phases for major projects typically take 18 months. The last similar effort by Riverbanks - Zoo 2002 - was approved in December 1997 and was completed in December 2002.

What likely would be built first?

Because it would have less impact on zoo visitors, the Children's Garden would be the easiest to start first. But until the funding is determined and architects start working on the projects, it's difficult to determine priorities and timelines.

What if you don't get the full $40 million?

Each of the major projects can stand on its own, so any of them could be eliminated. But infrastructure improvements included in the overall plan are long overdue and will have to be done regardless.

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