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DECATUR — The Decatur Park District Board of Commissioners took one of the first tangible steps toward a new penguin exhibit at Scovill Zoo on Wednesday, two years after fundraising began.

The board approved an agreement with SWT Design to design the penguin exhibit, as well as a river otter exhibit that is planned for coming years. The firm, based in St. Louis, has also designed exhibits for the St. Louis Zoo.

Officials hope construction of the exhibit could begin in the fall after design work is completed this summer.

Becky Newton, director of recreation and facilities for the district, said it’s important to note that the penguins would be a species native to Central America or Africa. They won’t need the same elaborate, air-conditioned habitat that cold-weather penguins would require.

“They’ll be able to be outside and handle our weather and that kind of thing,” she said. “… We’re basically building swimming pools for the otters and the penguins,” so they’ll require separate filtration systems.

The board did not approve a monetary amount for the design firm Wednesday, but Chief Financial Officer Rodney Buhr said officials expected to pay $32,140 for design work.

The entire exhibit cost is budgeted at $750,000. Through its Decatur Parks Foundation and annual Zoo-rific Evening gala events, the district has been raising money for two years. Buhr said it has collected about $85,000 in private donations so far.

Newton said the district would also seek to pay for parts of the work through grants if possible. The rest of the money was included in the district’s capital budget.

Scovill Zoo assistant director Ken Frye said zoo officials hope to have about 10 penguins in the exhibit. Parts of the exhibit constructed for the penguins will also accommodate the otter exhibit, though it remains several years away, he said.

“Our hope is to prepare ahead of time, plan ahead a little bit to have some of the (holding) building prepared for otters, space for otters and a filtration area for otters,” Frye said.

Though Buhr said the dry weather gave the zoo a great spring in terms of admission numbers, it remains about $30,000 short of breaking even. District officials hope that the new exhibit, along with other modernized elements such as a new entrance and accessible restrooms, will draw even more visitors.

“(The zoo) is a very popular attraction,” he said. “The more it can sustain itself, that helps us throughout the district.”

The zoo is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission for adults is $5.25, $4.25 for seniors and $3.25 for children ages 2 to 12.

The zoo’s first free admission day is today. Free days continue Thursdays throughout the summer.

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