- Associated Press - Thursday, May 1, 2014

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - The Kansas City zoo is offering a new program to manage free admission days after the offer proved too popular, prompting overcrowding, fights and gunfire on one day in March.

Zoo officials plan to mail a postcard to every household in Jackson and Clay counties that will allow them to choose one free day to visit the zoo in July, September or November this year. The residents will have four days to choose - on Monday through Thursday - rather than just one set day in the designated months, The Kansas City Star reported (http://bit.ly/1hW3EoD ).

Residents in the two counties were promised four free admission days each year after they approved a one-eighth cent sales tax to support the zoo in 2011. The promotion drew too many people, leading to fights and gunfire on March 18 when about 19,000 people showed up. On another free day in 2013, similar problems occurred when more than 29,000 visited the zoo.

Clay County Commission chairwoman Pam Mason, who heads the zoo’s tax district commission, said the new policy is only for the rest of 2014 and will be re-evaluated after officials see how it works. The zoo also will be increasing staff and will invest more in surveillance cameras, she said.

“We’ll see how it works,” Mason said Wednesday. “I do believe it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

A spokeswoman for Kansas City Mayor Sly James said Wednesday that he considers the new policy “a good balance between ensuring public safety and promoting an outstanding public amenity.”

Zoo director Randy Wisthoff said the program could increase the number of people taking advantage of free days but those crowds will be reduced on any given day.

“If you get too many people in any environment, it’s not as much fun,” Wisthoff said. “Once we get over the 10,000 mark, it starts to put stress and strain on the operation. Trying to keep those crowds down to more manageable numbers will be a better experience for everybody.”

It will cost the zoo district $75,000 to $80,000 to send postcards to about 380,000 households in Jackson and Clay counties. But Wisthoff said it’s a relatively small expense to fulfill a promise made to voters who created a tax district that generates as much as $12 million a year for the zoo.

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Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com