Denver Toyota dealers ink $5.4 million deal for naming rights at zoo’s elephant exhibit

Posted: 12/06/2011 01:00:00 AM MST

Updated: 12/06/2011 01:14:23 AM MST

By Electa Draper
The Denver Post

Mayor Michael Hancock, left, and Denver Zoo board chairwoman Katie Schoelzel help announce a deal for naming rights to the zoo’s new elephant exhibit. Local Toyota dealers will donate $5.4 million for the “Toyota Elephant Passage.” The 10-acre exhibit is scheduled to open June 1. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

The Denver Toyota Dealers Association will spend $5.4 million for the right to name a new Denver Zoo exhibit “Toyota Elephant Passage.”

The deal closes a $2 million gap to match public funding of the $50 million exhibit that will focus on Asian elephants, rhinos and tapirs. The exhibit is scheduled to open June 1.

The donation is the second largest in the zoo’s 115-year history. The largest was $7 million by Janus in 2004.

Zoo president and chief executive Craig Piper said the exhibit, which includes more than 2 miles of trails and 1 million gallons of water features for its animal inhabitants, is the most significant in the zoo’s history.

“We’re not just 80 acres in City Park,” Piper said at Monday’s announcement. “We’re people working all over the world to preserve many species.”

Asian elephants, including bulls, greater one-horned rhinos and Malayan tapirs are the stars of the exhibit, but it also will include fishing cats, small-clawed otters and flying foxes (bats). Animals are beginning to move into the their new digs.

Toyota’s fuel-efficiency goals and the launch of the new Prius vehicles make it a good fit with the Denver Zoo’s commitment to field conservation of species and cutting-edge energy-saving practices, said dealers association spokesman Jeff Thorpe, the Go Toyota general manager.

Mayor Michael Hancock and representatives of the association’s seven Toyota stores were on hand for Monday’s announcement at the zoo, almost two years to the date of the exhibit’s groundbreaking.

Denver voters authorized $62.5 million in bond funds for Denver Zoo improvements in 1999. The zoo committed to raise an additional $55 million in private funds. With the $117.5 million, the zoo completes the first two of four phases in a master plan.

Other improvements have included Predator Ridge, Congo Basin, Lorikeet Adventure, the bird-propagation center, the zoo-entrance complex and a parking garage.

More than 3,000 people have donated to Toyota Elephant Passage, Piper said, and support is still needed for the zoo’s innovative biomass gasification system to power the exhibit.

The system will convert animal waste and zoo visitors’ trash into energy.

Hancock said the zoo was one of his favorite spots in Denver. Piper said the zoo, with 1.9 million visitors in 2010, was the most visited cultural attraction in the state and the fourth most-visited zoo in the country.

“Whatever we do, we do it first class,” said zoo trustee Tom Siratovich.

Electa Draper: 303-954-1276 or