CITY BEAT

The Memphis Zoo is experiencing a bear market in Pandas.

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UNDERPERFORMERS

It looks like the bull market in giant pandas is over.

Since pandas LeLe and YaYa arrived in Memphis April 7, 2003, with great fanfare, 1.2 million people have seen them in the China Exhibit at the Memphis Zoo. But attendance has fallen well short of the expectations of zoo officials, who predicted an additional 400,000 visitors in the first year. Instead, the increase was 177,590, and, as expected, attendance has continued to decline since 2004.

“We wish we could have made that number, but we had who we had come and we were glad to have them,” said Memphis Zoo spokesman Brian Carter.

Attendance is only one source of revenue for the zoo, along with memberships, donations, and public funding. On a recent visit, the zoo and China Exhibit were spotlessly clean, and the pandas were sleeping in their air-conditioned day rooms behind a wall of glass while a handful of weekday visitors snapped photos.

The Memphis Zoo has a good reputation for frugality. Charity Navigator, which rates charities on spending efficiency, gives the zoo its highest rating of four stars. But pandas are high-maintenance celebrities. To borrow them from the Chinese government, the Memphis Zoo and three other American zoos with giant pandas each agreed to pay $1 million a year. If attendance continues to decline, it could eventually put a strain on zoo finances, especially since a key corporate donor, Northwest Airlines, is facing bankruptcy.

A panda cub would be good for business. LeLe, 7, and YaYa, 5, are just now at reproductive age, but pandas are anything but rabbits and monkeys when it comes to amour. Should a cub be born, the zoo would have to pay a one-time fee of $600,000 to panda conservation programs.

In hindsight, it is beginning to look like the zoos paid Google-like valuations for the much-hyped pandas. A preliminary report mentioned in The Washington Post this month said the four U.S. zoos with pandas — Washington, D.C., San Diego, Atlanta, and Memphis — are sharing attendance data “so they can use them to lobby China to lower panda rental fees when they try to renew their leases.”

Dennis Kelly, the chief executive of Zoo Atlanta, is compiling the figures. He told the Flyer the study will not be complete until September. He is adding data for 2004, which will make it more relevant to Memphis, since the pandas didn’t arrive here until 2003.

Carter said the $16 million China Exhibit is fully paid off, mainly from private funds. As far as renegotiation of the lease, he said “that is something that the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation is working on with the Chinese government.”

“Panda-monium,” as it was hyped by media sponsor The Commercial Appeal and others, crested in 2003 with all the fanfare of the arrival of the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team. Visitors originally paid an extra fee to see the pandas, but now the regular $13 adult admission covers pandas and all other exhibits.

An economic-impact study in 2004 by researchers Jeff Wallace and Andrea Orchik of the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis said the pandas would be well worth the investment even after the predictable decline in attendance after the first two years. The study said the zoo had been averaging about 687,000 visitors a year from 1992 to 2002, running neck-and-neck with Graceland as the most popular attraction in Memphis. The authors predicted 400,000 extra visits in the first panda year and an average of 187,500 extra visits each year through 2013. Panda power, the researchers said, translated to $270 million in extra goods and services in the local economy and 4,962 additional jobs.

There were less than half that many additional visitors. Attendance in the first year of the pandas was 820,223, an increase of 177,590 or 27 percent over the previous year. The following year, 2004-2005, attendance declined to 779,007. With temperatures of near 100 degrees and children back in school this week, the gift shop had marked down panda merchandise such as stuffed bears and a photo of Elvis with a panda. LeLe and YaYa, who like a cool climate, were sleeping on rocks with their backs to the windows.

The zoo is moving ahead with its next new attraction, Northwest Passage, which Carter said is 80 percent complete and will open in March 2006. Northwest Airlines, which is battling striking mechanics and has stopped providing free snacks and magazines on its flights to save money, made a financial contribution of an undisclosed amount to the exhibit but is not the title sponsor. The name is geographical and historical, Carter said. “And the red-and-white lettering on the sign [Northwest’s colors] is coincidental, believe it or not.”

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