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She never met Max Oppenheim, but Connie M. Lozinsky feels a spiritual kinship with the late developer and philanthropist, who founded the Oppenheim Zoo.

His long-ago vision, augmented by her memory of childhood visits to the little zoo, drives her and others to resurrect the Niagara Falls Boulevard facility. The federal government closed it in 1988 after 41 years of operation, because the animals lived in substandard conditions.

Not much of Oppenheim's dream is left to see. The collection is long gone, as are most of the buildings. What remains of the perimeter iron fence encloses tangled growth, two or three ramshackle structures and a huge mound of dirt.

But with luck -- and about $8 million -- the 15-acre Oppenheim Zoo will be back in business by 2001, with new animals and buildings, beautifully landscaped grounds and an attractive family restaurant.

"We're committed to seeing a zoo on that site. A better zoo," said Ms. Lozinsky, a Niagara Falls attorney and president of the zoo board.

The groundwork literally was laid last year with the completion of a 4 1/2 -acre retention pond designed to eliminate the drainage problems that left animals standing in muck and led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shut the operation.

Accomplished with donated labor and equipment, the excavation yielded the 55,000 cubic yards of fill now inside the fence that will become the revived zoo's Western Highlands exhibit, containing bighorn sheep, elk and mountain lions.

Other exhibition areas, all limited to North American species, will be called Tundra, Northeast Forest, Plains and Grasslands and Farm Yard -- the last a petting zoo. There also will be a Bird House and a multipurpose Vista Building with a panoramic view of the zoo.

Last week, the project officially moved into the "preplanning" mode. And today, the Niagara County Legislature will consider a $25,000 start-up grant.

Furthermore, Marine Midland Bank, which after the 1988 closing denied the zoo access to income from a $200,000 Oppenheim trust, has let funding resume.

"I feel confident we're turning a corner," Ms. Lozinsky said.

And now for the hard part -- raising the money to rebuild, starting with water and sewer lines.

Eschewing the usual public fund drive, at least for the time being, the board is seeking corporate and individual sponsors for exhibits and animals. Private sources also will be asked to underwrite construction and future maintenance costs.

Forging ahead without a bankroll might strike some as foolhardy, but not the keepers of Max Oppenheim's dream.

"To get this far, working with virtually no funds, is amazing," Ms. Lozinsky said.

"The money's out there," says another true believer, former board president Douglas Dutko. "We just have to find the right individuals with the right attitude."

Signing up a family restaurant should cement the zoo board's credibility, Ms. Lozinsky added. Negotiations with a national chain are under way, although the door remains open to local bidders, she said.

"We're looking for a restaurant that can co-exist with zoo as a tourist destination and give us year-round operating income."

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