Seal of Dane County County of Dane
County Executive's Office

County Set to Break Ground on Arctic Passage in 2014, "Bring the Bears Back to Madison"

December 18, 2013
Casey Slaughter Becker, Office of the County Executive (608) 267-8823 or cell (608)843-8858
County Executive

County Intends to Award $9.4 Million Construction Contract to JP Cullen; Project Includes Indoor Dining, Campaign Kick Off to Give Seals New Home, Sustainability


Construction of the much anticipated Arctic Passage exhibit at the county’s Henry Vilas Zoo is set to begin in the spring of 2014, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced today.  The project is the result of a historic public/private partnership between the county and private partners “The Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo.”


“After years of planning, the county is set to break ground on the largest expansion in our free zoo’s 102-year history,” said Parisi.  “This world-class exhibit will not only enhance one of the region’s premiere destinations for families, it will provide important education on the impact climate change has had on the threatened polar bear population and our planet.”


Dane County intends to award construction firm JP Cullen a $9.4 million contract to build the historic exhibit and indoor restaurant, pending final approval by the Dane County Board.


Years in the making, Arctic Passage’s improved design will “bring the bears back to Madison” with a new and more expansive habitat for polar bears with an underwater viewing area that brings people even closer to one of the most majestic animals on earth. 


The exhibit will also include a new habitat for grizzly bears – complete with a creek that can be stocked with fish, allowing visitors a rare chance to witness a bear capture and eat a fish just as grizzlies do in the wild.


And for the first time, the zoo will feature indoor dining.  A new restaurant area attached to Arctic Passage will seat dozens, and includes a viewing window looking into the polar bear exhibit. 


“We couldn’t be more excited to be a part of Arctic Passage,” said Tim Pertzborn of JP Cullen.  “It’s an honor to be able to contribute to a project that will have great economic and community impact regionally – in Dane County, and in our neighboring Rock County as well.”


A community fundraising campaign to move the zoo’s harbor seals into a new home in the Arctic Passage exhibit received a major boost with the help of an anonymous donation.  The funds will be used as a match to help double the impact of individual donations to the project through the Friends of the Zoo.


“On the heels of this exciting step forward for the Arctic Passage we’re excited to announce an anonymous $25,000 matching challenge grant to support the project,” said Alison Prange, Executive Director of the Friends of The Henry Vilas Zoo. “We are asking community members to dig deep and help us match this grant by January 18th to launch the final push to bring the bears back to Madison.”.


The total cost of the project is estimated at a little over $10.5 million.  Dane County will fund $4.38 million of Arctic Passage’s design and construction costs.  To date, Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo has raised $3.6 million and still needs to raise the remaining balance of a little over $1 million  for completion of the Arctic Passage through private donations from dedicated and generous zoo supporters.  The county will also fund the $1.6 million cost necessary to design and build the indoor dining area attached to the exhibit.


Under the agreement with the Friends, additional proceeds raised from dining sales will be allocated to a dedicated “Forever Free Fund” to allow the zoo to continue to update and expand exhibits, participate in species protection programs, care for its animal family, and continue to provide a great experience for families to enjoy.


“My focus since starting at the Henry Vilas Zoo in 2010 has been to make Arctic Passage a reality. I couldn’t be more pleased with the tremendous partnerships that have been built to make this happen,” said Henry Vilas Zoo Director Ronda Schwetz.  “Thanks to these local and zoo community partners, we are now able to build an engaging and naturalistic habitat for our animals as well as provide an exciting and educational experience for our visitors.”


Building sustainability on zoo grounds and awareness of global climate change are other key features of the exhibit.  To achieve these goals, County Executive Parisi further enhanced the design with a $380,000 capital investment in the 2014 county budget.


The funds will provide an interactive, educational experience for Arctic Passage visitors, with plans to acquire a repurposed “Tundra Buggy” research vehicle that scientists previously used to study polar bear behavior and evaluate the impacts of climate change. 


Parisi’s investment also provides for the installation of solar panels and large rainwater collection tanks in the exhibit to build on the sustainability of the zoo – creating energy and water resources for use on zoo grounds.


“The zoo continues to lead by example by implementing sustainability throughout its grounds,” said Supervisor Chuck Erickson, who represents the Henry Vilas Zoo’s neighborhoods on the Dane County Board.  “This common sense approach helps the zoo extend its mission beyond the important work staff does to educate the public and preserve animal populations, while saving taxpayer dollars.”


The Henry Vilas Zoo is one of only ten free zoos in the entire country, and one of few  free zoos that also provides free parking for zoo guests.  Attendance at the zoo has continued to climb year after year, with the zoo reaching nearly three quarters of a million guests each year.


Donations to help “Bring the Bears Back to Madison” can be made online at by calling the Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo at (608) 258-9490. For more information, please visit

Back to Press Releases