Attendance, revenues continue to decline for Jackson zoo; director hopes program helpsBy ANTHONY WARREN,
Things are going from bad to worse for the Jackson Zoological Park, which continues to hemorrhage visitors and revenues in the wake of the city’s plans to bring on new management.
Through the end of March, the zoo has attracted just 18,736 visitors, down 30 percent for the same time in 2018.
Last year, overall attendance was down about 27 percent over the previous year.
Interim Director Dave Wetzel said a number of factors have contributed to the decrease, from poor weather and a lack of money for marketing and new attractions, the park’s surroundings and the status of the zoo’s management.
“The weather has not played nice with us this year. A lot of cold dreary days and long rain events, particularly on weekends and holidays are the primary reason,” he said.
He believes numbers will pick up in the coming weeks, with several schools having already booked dates to bring students. He also said the zoo is launching a new “Safari Sunset” program to bring in visitors after hours.
“Some people would like to see us open later hours. We’re going to give it a try,” he said. “I don’t have the staff to do it seven days a week, but we can try it once a month for a couple of months and see how it works out.”
Zoo hours are typically 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last ticket sold at 3:30.
With declining attendance, revenues have also dropped. The zoo staff has been cut to bare bones, with just 25 full-time employees. “If we were fully staffed, full-time would need to be around 35 to 40 individuals,” Wetzel said.
Meanwhile, the marketing budget has been completely cut out. The park has one person, EJ Rivers, who handles marketing, public relations and development.
With so few staffers, employees are having to pull double and triple duty, and then some.
Wetzel, for instance, had hoped to speak recently to the Metro Jackson Lions Club but was unable to because he had to fill in for a zookeeper who was absent.
Rivers, who had been painting a facility at the zoo that same morning, spoke in his place.
Without a marketing budget, Rivers said she’s had to rely solely on corporate donors to fund the park’s annual fund-raisers, like Zoo Brew.
Zoo officials are also having to answer basic questions from the public, such as whether or not the park is still open.
“For whatever reason, when I go to the store or gas station in my uniform and they ask when the zoo will be open,” Wetzel said. “The zoo is open.”
Park attendance has been dropping for years. According to a 2016 study conducted by Schultz and Williams a main reason behind that decline is the facility’s location.
The zoo is located at 2918 W. Capitol St., in West Jackson. The street leading to the park is lined with abandoned and dilapidated homes, while the street itself is falling apart.
Rivers told the Lions Club that she’s had several flat tires and two bent rims as a result of the road’s condition.
However, the city has done little to repave the street or remove the blight.
Citing declining attendance, in March 2018 the Jackson Zoological Society announced that it was considering moving the zoo to Northeast Jackson.
That move was met with immediate backlash from the city. Lumumba blamed park leadership, rather than its location, and announced the administration would begin looking for a new management firm.
Requests for proposals were issued last fall. In January, the city council approved the mayor’s requests to enter into negotiations with ZoOceanarium, a firm that has offices in Dubai, Singapore and the United States.
Chief Administrative Officer told the Sun that talks were expected to wrap up in March.
It was unclear when talks would wrap up. Jackson Public Information Officer Meagan Gosa did not know at press time.
Society board president Alexander Chess also couldn’t be reached for comment.