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A new program allowing people to visit the Minnesota Zoo for free by showing proof that they receive public assistance cards was a hit during its first year, ushering in 63 percent more of low-income visitors in 2016 than in the previous year.

The initiative, now called the Free to Explore Program, brought in 65,689 people on limited incomes last year, compared with about 40,000 people who attended through an access program in 2015.

“I think one of the things that was most exciting to me is that it changed really the face of our visitorship,” said Claire Ross, the Minnesota Zoo’s access programs coordinator. “On a daily basis, when you’d look out the window, you’d see a different demographic at the zoo than you used to.”

Since 1995, state law has required that at least one in 10 zoo visitors be “economically disadvantaged” and admitted for free rather than paying the $18 admission price for adults or $12 for kids and seniors. The zoo gave out free admission vouchers for 20 years to Head Start programs, job centers and community-based nonprofits so they could give them to clients.

But just a quarter of the 120,000 passes were used each year, and it took a lot of staff time to record the redemptions, Ross said.

In addition, there was no way to control who actually got the coupons, she said. Sometimes people peddled them in the parking lot or on Craigslist, or families who didn’t need them would somehow obtain them.

The new effort admits people for free providing they can prove that they get public assistance by showing an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, a Head Start acceptance letter, a Minnesota Health Care Programs card, or documentation from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. They also need ID and proof of Minnesota residency.

These cards or paperwork are something people already keep handy, said Catherine Fair, senior director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties.

“What’s unique about the zoo access program is that people don’t need to go through an additional hoop,” Fair said. “This gives our low-income families … learning experiences with their families outside the classroom, [which] are so invaluable.”

Zoo officials are excited about the program’s success, but an early worry was that the program would “go gangbusters and we would have way more people,” Ross said.

With more than 400,000 Minnesotans on SNAP alone and no cap on annual visits, Ross said officials worried about getting overwhelmed, though that hasn’t happened.

“What we do get is a lot of phone calls asking questions about it, mostly to find out if it’s really true,” she said.

Avoiding ‘stigma’ of poverty

The zoo isn’t the only nonprofit cultural attraction to offer special deals for people on fixed incomes. The programs are usually the result of a corporate partnership, said Jay Bad Heart Bull, associate director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a new phenomenon but one whose visibility is growing as institutions … get creative with maximizing their impact,” Bad Heart Bull said.

The zoo based its program on one at the Science Museum of Minnesota, Ross said, which offers a discounted $3 museum admission when visitors show public assistance documentation. Reduced admission to the Minnesota History Center costs $4 through a similar program, while the Children’s Theatre offers an ACT Pass membership, which includes discounted $5 tickets to people who qualify for free or reduced school lunches or provide a statement of need. Free memberships to the Children’s Museum also are available to families who show their taxes or public assistance cards.

The Bakken Museum in Minneapolis just started a free admission program for people on public assistance in January, said Noel Clark, marketing and communications coordinator.

“We want to be as welcoming as possible to as many underserved communities as possible,” Clark said. “We’re trying to find a way to talk about this program without making people self-conscious.”

The museum is contemplating how to avoid adding to the stigma of being on public assistance, Clark said, recognizing that whipping out WIC documentation or asking about a special discount could be embarrassing.

Even with free tickets, zoo visitors still have the issue of getting to Apple Valley or paying for parking.

“The only barrier that I still hear of … is transportation,” Fair said. “A lot of our resources are not accessible to public transportation.”

Justin Scharr, a clinical program supervisor with People Incorporated, took 16 clients from an outpatient program to the zoo in November. Scharr works at the Huss Center for Recovery in Minneapolis, which serves people with severe mental illness and chemical dependency. Most are low-income and chronically homeless too, Scharr said.

“They were grateful,” Scharr said. “They still talk about it to this day.”

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781