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Toronto Zoo yet to secure funding for blockbuster panda showcase

A panda watches tourists at the Panda Breeding Center in Chengdu, June, 11, 2008. Tourism is at an all time low at the Panda center after the devastating earthquake that killed more than 69,000 people almost one month ago, with 17,500 classified as missing. In the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve yesterday workers buried, Mao Mao, a 9 year old panda killed in a landslide during the quake. Mao Mao is the only Panda confirmed dead while another one Xiao Xiao is still missing. Across the region the quake relief efforts are continuing but corruption remains a major concern as many question where the hundreds of millions of dollars of donations are going.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images/Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The panda plans are well behind schedule at the Toronto Zoo, a city-owned attraction that badly needs the blockbuster exhibit to lure donors and visitors after a year in which attendance dropped by 10 per cent.

Zoo officials said in November that they intended to have a private-sector partner or sponsor in place by this month to pay for an exhibit for two giant pandas who could arrive as early as next year.

But as a new zoo board prepares to meet for the first time Monday, no tender has been issued and the formal search for a partner hasn't even begun because the zoo still hasn't inked a deal to secure the cuddly black-and-white bears in the first place.

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"It's the little things that have really been holding up the agreement between the three of us," said Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, chief cheerleader for a plan that would split the pandas' time in Canada between zoos in Toronto, Calgary and Granby, Que.

"When you try to share a panda, every small equation comes into play. What happens if … we have an unfortunate incident and one of them dies? What about insurance? How do we cover that sort of thing off?"

Mr. Mammoliti is no longer on the zoo board, but he's angling to keep a toe in the panda project.

If the panda deal goes ahead, Toronto Zoo officials will have to scramble to design and build a paddock that's expected to cost between $8-million and $10-million in time for their arrival.

And if a deep-pocketed partner can't be found swiftly, the zoo intends to ask the city for a repayable $850,000 loan to pay for the upfront design costs – a request the mayor's office said it would reject.

"As our current financial situation stands right now, we just do not have the ability to be making any type of financial contribution to this project," said Adrienne Batra, the mayor's press secretary.

But Toronto Zoo CEO John Tracogna said he remains hopeful an agreement can be reached, a paying partner found and a loan avoided. "We haven't had to go to that [loan]scenario yet because our focus has been on getting the agreement in principle and then looking at issuing an RFP [request for proposals,] he said. "The loan would be a Plan-B-type approach."

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The pandas are especially important to the zoo's future because a 10-year, $250-million fundraising drive rests partly on renting the endangered bears from China.

The pandas, along with other special exhibits, are also key to keeping ticket sales high in an era of austerity at city hall.

When the new board meets Monday, it will receive a report showing overall attendance has dropped 10.3 per cent, from nearly 1.5-million in 2009 to just over 1.3-million last year.

Visits by adults, seniors and schoolchildren were all down, as was the number of zoo memberships sold. Zoo memberships, whose proceeds are a main source of fundraising for the attraction, were down 6 per cent in 2010.

While the zoo still exceeded its internal attendance targets, Mr. Tracogna blamed the slow year on the lack of a new, marquee exhibit. "We're noticing that special exhibits do play a strong role in fluctuations in attendance," he said.

Mr. Tracogna is hoping some other black-and-white creatures will buoy ticket sales until the pandas land. The zoo is debuting a new penguin exhibit this year.

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Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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