The Lions Roar

Denver's Big Four are getting even bigger.

In the coming years, Denver residents will see some major -- and expensive -- expansions and renovations at the city's Big Four institutions. The Denver Art Museum and the Denver Zoo are both using money from a 1999 bond initiative to pay for major expansions; the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is using private donations to remodel; and the Denver Botanic Gardens is planning to unveil its expansion plans -- and how it plans to finance them -- next month. In addition, these organizations benefit from being quasi-city-owned; the City and County of Denver owns the property and buildings that the facilities occupy, pays for their utilities and provides a small amount of money for operating expenses. All of the organizations, however, are managed by privately run nonprofit organizations or foundations. Here's a look at how the Tier I organizations are doing and what they're planning for the future:

Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Operating budget:$22 million; approximately $7.2 million comes from the SCFD, and $1.1 million comes from the City and County of Denver.

Annual attendance:1.6 million

Plans:The Museum of Nature and Science is celebrating its 100th birthday this year with special attractions such as the Viking exhibit; as part of its centennial makeover, it also changed its name from the Denver Museum of Natural History. The biggest change won't be complete until the middle of 2003, however, when Space Odyssey, a $45 million, 40,000-square-foot space technology center, debuts. The entire west facade and interior of the museum's first floor will be renovated to give visitors "the feeling that they are traveling across the universe without ever leaving the ground." Gates Planetarium, now closed, will reopen then. The museum has already raised more than $17 million from the El Pomar Foundation, the Gates Family Foundation, the Coors Foundation, Lockheed Martin and several individual donors; the museum itself will contribute up to $15 million to the project, part of which will come from its SCFD funds. Space Odyssey will be unique because digital images of space will be downloaded from NASA to give people a view of the galaxy's stars and planets. "Space is a topic that's always interesting to people, but our perception of it has changed from Jules Verne to today," says museum president and CEO Raylene Decatur. "This is not a simulation; it's the real thing."

Denver Zoo

Operating budget:$16 million; approximately $5.6 million comes from the SCFD, and $1.5 million comes from the City and County of Denver.

Annual attendance:between 1.5 million and 1.75 million

Plans: In 1999, voters approved $62.5 million in bond money to benefit the zoo, which plans to match or exceed that amount with its own fundraising efforts. Over the next twelve to fifteen years, the zoo will be completely redesigned between the Tropical Discovery exhibit on the east side and the Primate Panorama on the west. After the zoo completes a $7.5 million underground parking garage in 2002, it will begin construction on a new entryway, complete with two new animal exhibits -- one featuring lions and the other featuring hyenas and African hunting dogs. Improvements at the front of the zoo will also include a new visitor and administrative center, thanks in part to the Janus Foundation, which recently donated $7 million for the construction of the building that will house a new gift shop and new concessions, restrooms and offices. The Janus moniker will be incorporated into the name of the new center. In future years, the zoo will add new habitats for hippos, Asian elephants, Indian rhinos and baboons; an Australian exhibit will be added later, as well as a Serengeti exhibit in which zebras, antelope and giraffes will roam together. "The order in which we do this depends on playing musical chairs with the animals," says zoo executive vice president and chief operating officer Brian Klepinger. "In order to build a new hippo exhibit, we'll need to move the elephants. We don't want elephants in anyone's back yard."

Denver Art Museum

Operating budget:$15 million; approximately $5.6 million comes from the SCFD, and $1.4 million comes from the City and County of Denver.

Annual attendance: 619,000

Plans:In addition to helping the zoo, voters in 1999 also approved $62.5 million in bond money for the art museum, which plans to build a 146,000-square-foot addition to the south of its current 200,000-square-foot structure at 14th Avenue and Bannock Street. The museum has promised to raise another $50 million on its own to maintain and provide programming in the new building. The additional space will allow the museum to display more of its permanent collection, much of which is currently in storage; right now, for instance, none of its African oceanic pieces are on view, only 1 percent of its modern and contemporary fine and decorative arts are out, and less than 1 percent of its textiles are on display. The new building, expected to be completed in 2005, will also be used to hold special exhibits. "We haven't had as much visitation for special exhibits as we would have if we'd had more room," says art museum director Lewis Sharp. "We realized how limited we were with the Impressionism show. We had only 215,000 visitors for that, while Seattle and Atlanta each had 300,000. The present building was not designed for special exhibits."

Denver Botanic Gardens

Operating budget: $7 million; approximately $3.3 million comes from the SCFD, and $700,000 comes from the City and County of Denver.

Annual attendance:400,000

Plans:The Denver Botanic Gardens has undergone many changes in the last year, most notably a 42 percent turnover in full-time employees; a new horticulture director completely redesigned and replanted more than twenty gardens this past summer, and just a couple of weeks ago, Michael Blake defected from Colorado's Ocean Journey to assume the new position of associate director at the Botanic Gardens. Executive director Brinsley Burbidge, who was hired two years ago, says he wants to make the gardens more attractive to children; to allow visitors to see more of the plants that are currently out of view in glass houses; and to open the west gates that separate the gardens from Cheesman Park in order to create a new neighborhood entrance. But the Botanic Gardens, which is fifty years old this year, doesn't have enough money to do the things it wants, Burbidge says. "We're just beginning to put together plans for a capital campaign," he explains. "By May we will determine exactly what we want to do, how much it will cost and how to fund it."

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