Mayor-elect Rob Ford is in favour of bringing a pair of giant pandas to Toronto, but only if a private partner can be found to cover costs that could be as high as $20-million.
"[Mr. Ford]told me he hopes they can find a sponsor, because he doesn't want to support it if it's the taxpayers' dime," said Nick Kouvalis, the mayor-elect's chief of staff.
But the funding proviso raises a thorny question: If the city-owned Toronto Zoo can't raise the money, what happens to a panda agreement that required high-level diplomacy and nearly a decade to draft?
Although Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, the panda project's biggest champion, is confident the private sector will jump at the opportunity, others aren't so sure. The zoo has a lacklustre fundraising record, and the city has had trouble attracting private sponsors for capital projects such as the revitalization of Nathan Phillips Square.
"We'll have to review it at the time," Mr. Kouvalis said. "Who knows if we're stuck? It's hard to say, I mean, we can't just send the pandas back."
The Toronto Zoo hasn't even reached a formal deal to acquire the pandas yet, according to John Tracogna, the attraction's chief executive officer.
He and officials from zoos in Calgary and Granby, Que., travelled to China last month to sign a "letter of intent" with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens.
The parties are now hammering out the fine print of an agreement Mr. Tracogna called "imminent."
If all goes smoothly, a breeding pair of pandas could arrive in Toronto for a minimum five-year engagement as early as 2012, he said. One panda will be from the Chongqing Zoo, the other from the Chengdu Panda Base, he added. The Chinese will pick which bears are dispatched to Canada.
Although fees are still being negotiated, they are expected to be about $1-million a year for the pair. On top of that, the Toronto Zoo has to build a new $10-million exhibit.
That means the Toronto Zoo is seeking somewhere between $15-million and $20-million from the private sector, depending on how long the pandas stay before moving to Calgary or Granby.
"It's not going to be a problem," said Mr. Mammoliti, a former mayoralty candidate who endorsed Mr. Ford in September.
The zoo predicts the bears will draw 450,000 extra visitors a year, enough to lure a private sponsor. Mr. Tracogna said the zoo isn't necessarily seeking a single corporate partner - a combination of fundraising, sponsorship and fees for the exhibit could cover the cost.
Either way, neither Mr. Tracogna nor Mr. Mammoliti offered a backup plan if third-party money doesn't materialize. If the gambit fails, "then we, as a board, are going to have to rethink the business model," Mr. Mammoliti conceded.
The Toronto Zoo has had difficulty raising large sums of money. In 2009, a "divorce" settlement was finalized between the attraction's now-defunct fundraising arm and the zoo board, which decided to cut ties because it felt the foundation wasn't capable of raking in large gifts from deep-pocketed donors.
The zoo has now established a fledging internal development group whose goal is to raise $250-million over 10 years, not including money for the pandas. The zoo only expects to raise $731,000 this year, according to a November, 2009, report to the board.
"How they're suddenly going to turn around and put $10-million on the table in two years, it's a very risky proposition," said Councillor Adam Vaughan, one of Mr. Ford's harshest critics. "And at a time when we've got a mayor [-elect]trying to cut costs, it would seem odd that we'd entertain taking on new challenges and new costs like this."
He added, "This is literally a pet project."