The Ice House Cometh

The Detroit Zoo is building the most extensive and complex penguinarium in the world, a $30M show house that’s projected to draw up to 300,000 more annual visitors.
An architect’s rendering of the $30 million Polk Penguin Conservation Center to be completed in early 2016. The building’s exterior evokes an iceberg with a cascading waterfall. Photograph courtesy of The Detroit Zoo

It was undoubtedly a string of factors that convinced Stephen Polk to make the largest gift in the history of the Detroit Zoo, and it’s safe to say the roots of his $10 million donation toward the construction of what will be the Polk Penguin Conservation Center go way back in time, to when Polk was just a small boy, fascinated with all aspects of wildlife.

“I remember going to the zoo as a child in elementary school,” he says, “and it’s been part of my family’s history as long as I can remember. I was a B.A. in biology, and then ended up attending graduate school at Michigan and working for the forest service in a bird project. So birds have always been a favorite of mine.”

In fact, Polk was on track for an academic career in wildlife biology when his life took a dramatic and unplanned turn 30 years ago: The deaths of both his father and brother forced him to put his chosen path on hold and join the family business. Southfield-based R.L. Polk & Co., launched by his great-grandfather soon after the Civil War, evolved into a provider of information and marketing solutions to the automotive industry, insurance companies, and related businesses. By 1994, Polk was the CEO. But his interest in wildlife never wavered, nor did his relationship with the Detroit Zoo.

“I actually (joined) the board in the late 1980s,” Polk says, “so I’ve been working closely with the zoo for pretty much 30 years now.”

In late 2012, Polk had been involved in many discussions with Ron Kagan, executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society, concerning an upgrade for the penguinarium, home to the zoo’s penguin population since 1968. Kagan asked Polk to accompany him to Antarctica to observe and gather facts on the birds in their natural habitat. Polk eagerly signed on for what he viewed as an opportunity of a lifetime, and in January 2013, he and Kagan made the journey by plane.

“Penguins are truly fascinating,” Polk says. “There probably isn’t another bird that’s any more fun to watch. I think the chance to go down and see them in person in Antarctica is an awe-inspiring experience, and I feel really fortunate I was able to do it. Not very many people get to experience that, and it certainly highlights just how awesome Antarctica is and how awesome penguins are to be able to survive it.”

Just a few months after returning from the trip, Polk sold his family company to Colorado-based business data giant IHS Inc. for $1.4 billion. He and his wife, Bobbi, officially made their commitment to backing the new penguinarium around the same time.

“The two of us are real happy that we could make this happen,” Polk says. “It was a great intersection of personal interest, family interest, and I think a chance to really do something special. I think that number ($10 million) is what we identified was going to be required as a lead gift to get this thing off the ground and do it right. When I looked at potential givebacks to the local community, I don’t think there’s anything quite like the zoo.”

Other benefactors seem to agree. In addition to the Polks’ gift, the William Davidson Foundation Fund has donated $3 million, numerous other foundations and donors have made major gifts, and the zoo’s board has committed additional millions, bringing the total of secured funds to more than $25 million for the $30 million project.

“We still need help,” Kagan says, “another $4 to $5 million, and every little bit helps.”

Kagan is quick to point out that the project has already had a positive impact on the local economy: More than 100 design, engineering, and construction jobs will have been created and sustained, and several full-time staff positions will be filled once the new center opens early next year. And then there are the zoo’s attendance numbers, which Kagan says have been steadily climbing for the better part of a decade.

“In 2006 we were averaging about a million visitors a year,” he says, “which was up from 10 years earlier, when we were averaging 800,000. We’re now averaging about 1.2 million, although 2013 and 2014 were at 1.3 million. So we’re on a continuum. This year we’re hoping we approach 1.35 million, (or) maybe even a little more than that.”

Kagan is counting on an exponential spike when the new penguin center debuts.

“Aquariums and museums tend to have most of their attendance in bad weather,” he says. “The PPCC is more like an aquarium than anything else. Once this opens we’ll probably have 2,000 visitors a day, maybe 3,000. Even on a cold day, we’re strategically situated near the entrance, so you don’t have to walk to the back of the zoo in the middle of the winter.”

And the bottom line? “I think it’ll bump our attendance by 200,000 to 300,000 visitors (a year),” Kagan says. “That’s a huge number.” In turn, improved attendance will have a positive effect on the annual economic impact of the zoo in the region, which is currently estimated to be $100 million.

“With economic impact,” Kagan says, “normally the benchmark multiplier affect for most things is around 2.5 times what you’re spending. So the direct impact of having an additional 200,000 visitors a year is probably $3 million or $4 million a year, and that’s a modest estimate in terms of an increase. If you then translate that into economic impact, it’s at least another $10 million, maybe more. This is a big business deal. Our conservative estimates are that this takes us from an economic impact of $100 million a year to maybe $110 million. Others would probably say it’s (closer to $120 million). It’s going to take a couple of years to see what happens.”

Kagan has no doubts the penguin center will match expectations, if not exceed them.

“This community has had a love affair with the zoo since it opened (in 1928),” he says. “People vote with their feet, obviously, so we know this is still a place they love, where they have fun, and where they continue to form these unique memories.”

The site for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center has been under construction since last August. It’s just north of the historic Wildlife Interpretive Gallery, near the main entrance on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak. It covers two acres and is the largest project ever undertaken at the zoo, which encompasses 125 acres of naturalistic habitats that are home to more than 2,500 animals representing 280 different species.

When the first penguinarium opened in 1968 it was way ahead of its time, offering a groundbreaking environment where 60 penguins could live in a three-sided habitat encircled by a large pool. The unique design allowed the three species of penguins — Kings, Rockhoppers, and Macaronis — to “fly” through the water, just as they would in their natural habitat. (Once the penguins depart for their new home early next year, the current penguinarium will be converted into a bat conservation center.) “The whole concept of allowing the penguins to swim not back and forth, but in a kind of loop, was revolutionary,” Kagan says. “It was just a brilliant design for its time, and it was fabulous for decades.”

Kagan promises the new 33,000-square-foot center will be even more spectacular, starting with the exterior design, which will resemble a vast, milky-white tabular iceberg — featuring steep sides and a flat top, much like a plateau. A waterfall will cascade down from the top of the building, suggesting the iceberg is in the midst of a significant thaw. In warmer months, the shallow pool in front can be used for wading. It will convert to a small skating rink during the winter.

The structure will be 50 feet tall from top to bottom, but half will be water, to accommodate the 25-foot-deep, 326,000-gallon aquatic area, more than three times the depth of the pools in the current penguinarium. The temperature of the air and water will be a steady and chilly 37 degrees at all times.

“The contractor in charge of concrete has been in the business for 40 years,” says Gerry VanAcker, the zoo’s COO. “He says this is by far the most complicated concrete project he’s ever done — the angles, the intricacy, the different bores they had to do, and the rebar reinforcement they had to use. It also has to be super insulated, so it’s a highly complex project.”

A dynamic feature of the penguins’ new home will be a “deep dive,” offering views above and below water as the birds plummet, soar, and literally fly past zoo visitors.

“I’ve been to Antarctica four times,” Kagan says, “but I’ve never been underwater with the penguins. So there are things here you can do that you can’t even do in the wild. And we’re bringing in a new species, our fourth, called the Gentoo, so we’ll have 80 to 85 penguins and there will always be 20 in the water — and they go fast, so they’ll look like torpedoes going by.”

During his tenure at the zoo, Kagan says he has put a premium on one quality above all others when it comes to each exhibit and attraction.

“One of the things humans really value is authenticity,” he says. “So before we built the Arctic Ring of Life (North America’s largest polar bear exhibit), we went up and spent time with the Inuit, 2,000 miles north of Detroit. There was nothing there — just us, ice, and the North Pole, which was a few hundred miles away. We spent time on the pack ice. We really wanted to make sure we got it as authentic as possible.”

The same approach applied when the time came to replace the outdated penguinarium.

“We also want to tell stories about the unique aspects of the penguins,” Kagan says, “and how they fit into what is a rich environmental story. There’s climate change, how that affects wildlife, the oceans, sea level, and all that. There will be many, many stories to tell.”

Perhaps the most compelling story of all is that of British explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and his experience crossing the notorious Drake Passage. Both Kagan and Stephen Polk are longtime admirers of Shackleton, whose incredible expeditions to Antarctica 100 years ago were a testament to survival, endurance, and courage.

“It’s extremely remarkable when you think about Shackleton’s whole history with Antarctica,” Polk says. “It’s truly one of the last wild places on earth that was ever explored, and it’s not even fully explored yet. And Ron’s been able to extend on his vision from when our discussions started, so it’s grown even since my commitment was made.”

Kagan determined that the Polk Penguin Conservation Center would feature 4-D animated special effects, recreating the experience of crossing the Drake Passage on Shackleton’s three-masted wooden ship Endurance.  The ship ultimately sank after being trapped by ice while attempting to land in Antarctica in January 1915. Effects simulated in a 4-D film may include physical components such as rain, wind, strobe lights, and vibration, to heighten the experience.

“To get to Antarctica you go to the southern tip of South America,” Kagan explains. “Then there’s this gap of land and it takes about two days to sail from the southern tip to Antarctica. That body of water is called the Drake Passage, after Sir Francis Drake.”

The 600-mile-wide channel separates Antarctica from South America. It also happens to be the place where three of the world’s great oceans — the Atlantic, Pacific, and what’s called the Southern Ocean, which circles Antarctica — all meet head-on, creating conditions that are invariably turbulent, chaotic, and dangerously unpredictable.

“What happens is aquatic turmoil,” Kagan says. “Usually there are) 50-foot waves, and it (goes on) for several hundred miles.
Occasionally it’s calm, but most of the time it isn’t — and sometimes it’s really violent. Many ships have gone down or been disabled, and that’s how almost everyone (gets there).”

Including Kagan. The first time he went to Antarctica, in the mid-’90s, it was by ship. “I got on and we had an orientation meeting,” he recalls. “I noticed all the tables and chairs were chained to the floor. It had just been converted from a Russian spy ship to an eco-tourist vessel that could handle these types of crossings. It was really incredibly ignorant and foolish of me, but I said, ‘Wow, you must have a really bad theft problem; do people steal the furniture?’

“Of course,” Kagan continues, “if you don’t chain stuff down, it goes flying. It was a wild trip. Everyone who (makes the voyage) gets violently seasick, unless they’re really lucky.”

Did he get seasick?

“Oh, absolutely,” Kagan says. “And we felt we should convey some of that experience to our visitors.”

Almost immediately after entering the center for a tour that will take around 30 minutes, there will be a jarringly theatrical introduction to the Drake Passage crossing. It starts with a ship deck ramp — one of eight ramps overall in the exhibit — descending 25 feet to underwater acrylic tunnels that wind through a gallery of dramatic Antarctic sights, sounds, and sensations.

“There will be all kinds of 4-D effects as you do that,” Kagan says. “In addition to the large windows, part of the floor will be acrylic so the penguins surround you. We’ll have a lot of special effects. You’ll be hit by a wave and get sprayed with mist — there will even be some snow. You’ll be underwater, looking through portals, and see replicas of giant whales, leopard seals, some of the unique Arctic wildlife, including this colossal 60-foot squid, an underwater beast that battles sperm whales for a living.”

The whole idea, naturally, is to stay true to Kagan’s mission, and make the entire experience as authentic and realistic as possible, right down to the distinct possibility of causing some stomachs to rumble.

“Some people may feel a little queasy, sure,” Kagan says, “because it’s a 360-degree, high-definition 4-D projection of what it’s like to cross the passage.

“But if you want to go to Antarctica,” he adds, after a pause and a matter-of-fact, unapologetic shrug, “this is what you have to do. You have to cross the Drake Passage.”

It just might be a good idea to skip lunch before you do. db

Building a Zoo

Wolf Pack
The Cotton Family Wolf Habitat will feature grassy meadows, trees, a flowing stream and pond, dens, and elevated rock outcroppings when it opens to the public on June 5.

Here’s a list of the major exhibits that have opened at the Detroit Zoo in the past quarter century or so, along with the cost of each project.

Detroit Zoo Exhibits