By David Bailey
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - As day three of the Minnesota state government shutdown began on Sunday, residents shut out of state parks and historical sites had one option restored over the holiday weekend -- the Minnesota Zoo.
The zoo, which had been ordered to suspend all but its most essential services in a broad state government shutdown that started on Friday, reopened Sunday after a judge ruled that it could use revenue generated by its own operations.
"The crowds are streaming in," Zoo Director Lee Ehmke said on Sunday in a telephone interview.
Under the original order, the zoo could feed and care for the animals. And, visitors could spend an evening with the Monkees, the 1960s musical group that presented two concerts through a private promoter at the zoo, but not with the monkeys.
That meant laying off 240 of 330 zoo staff, delaying the opening of a new penguin exhibit and suspending some construction projects, Ehmke said.
As a result of the judge's order on Saturday, staffing has been restored, the exhibit will open as scheduled and construction continues.
The state government shutdown began after Democratic Governor Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders failed to reach a state budget deal that would eliminate a $5 billion deficit by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.
No new talks were scheduled over the long holiday weekend, though the sides were expected to meet again early next week. They were about $1.4 billion apart when talks broke down.
In addition to state parks and historical sites, highway rest areas and numerous state offices have been closed and nearly two-thirds of the 36,000 state employees furloughed.
The zoo was among numerous groups that streamed into a Ramsey County court hearing on Friday seeking to continue operations, arguing they were either critical to the state or had funding that should be unaffected by the state government shutdown.
The zoo argued that its revenue was covered by legislation approved more than two decades ago. Former state Attorney General Mike Hatch, who narrowly lost the 2006 gubernatorial election to former governor and current presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, represented the zoo.
Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin ruled Saturday the zoo could use revenue from admissions, parking, concessions, memberships and donations.
On a sunny summer holiday weekend, the zoo can attract 8,000 to 10,000 visitors and generate $50,000 to $80,000 in direct revenue, Ehmke said.
The cost of an ongoing shutdown at the zoo would have been significantly higher since it would impact prepaid zoo camps, annual memberships and the suspension of construction.
"We are obviously now in a position where we can recoup some of those losses and move forward in a good solid way for the rest of the summer," Ehmke said.
Still, the state provides about 29 percent of the zoo's annual operating budget and money eventually will get tight if the governor and legislators do not reach an agreement.
"We anticipate we could continue operation into September, and possibly all the way through September, just using our revenue and the carry-forward funds that we have from the last fiscal year," Ehmke said.
"Of course we are hopeful, and I think it is pretty realistic to imagine, that this shutdown will be resolved well before then," he added.
(Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Barbara Goldberg)