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Zoo, city to work on open-air pavilion

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Not wanting the project to languish, the Watertown City Council informally agreed Monday night to continue to work on replacing the former aviary at the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park with an open-air pavilion.

Council members met with representatives of the Thompson Park Conservancy, the board that oversees the city-owned zoo, to discuss how best to proceed with getting the pavilion built after scrapping the original idea two weeks ago of turning the aviary into an education center.

In the meeting Monday night at the zoo, council members said they want to avoid what happened with the learning center project after it went through a series of design changes over nearly two years and then finally ballooned to a nearly $1 million cost. The city had projected spending about $531,000 before the bids were opened earlier this month.

The council tentatively agreed Monday night to spend no more than the original $320,000 cost estimate on a prefabricated 30-foot by 50-foot cross-shaped structure, which would have a footprint almost identical to that of the defunct aviary.

“We still have a long way to go,” Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso said.

Executive Director John T. Wright and City Engineer Kurt W. Hauk may get together as early as the next few days to work on formulating plans for the pavilion.

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham and board Vice President Robert D. Gorman, who is also managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times, will form a committee to figure out what material the pavilion would be made of, exactly what it would look like and what amenities it would include.

Mr. Hauk recommended that a prefabricated pavilion would be the way to go because it worked out well with similar city-owned structures recently completed at the J.B. Wise parking lot off Public Square and two city parks. He estimated it would cost about $170,000 to demolish the aviary and replace it with “a natural looking pavilion” that would fit in well with the character of the other zoo buildings.

With the hopes of getting bids ready to go within several weeks, Mr. Graham said he would like the project “to move as quickly as possible.”

The pavilion project also would show the zoo’s commitment to obtaining national accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Mr. Wright said.

He also outlined his plans for improvements to the adjacent children’s zoo by using it to tell the north country’s agricultural story. As part of those plans, he would like possibly to relocateg a historical barn to the site and making it the new focal point for the Children’s Farm. Other exhibits would show how the region played a vital role in the industry’s progression, he said.

“It would be a unique opportunity that’s something unique to Watertown,” Mr. Wright said.

The Conservancy would seek matching grants from the state, preservation groups and agricultural organizations for the children’s zoo improvements.

But Mr. Graham said the city may hold off on that project and make those improvements “over time.”

Describing the nearly 30-year-old steel-framed aviary as an iconic structure, the mayor and other council members wanted to save it. Today it is closed to the public, home only to a pair of turkeys.

Plans had called for using the learning center, to be named after the late Mayor Karl R. Burns, for education and exhibit space and a variety of events, including birthday parties and other gatherings.

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