Few Details: Questions surround mayor's choice for zoo management

By ANTHONY WARREN,

A group that manages no major zoos in the United States and has little, if any, experience revitalizing failing zoos could soon be managing the Jackson Zoological Park.

The city of Jackson is currently in talks with ZoOceanarium Group, an international zoo and aquarium management firm with offices in Dubai, Singapore and the United States.

City officials say they hope to finalize contract negotiations in February.

However, questions about ZoOcean-arium remain.

Members of the Jackson City Council know relatively little about the group, while the ZoOceanarium website offers few details into the organization’s activities, current projects, or contact information.

“The mayor and the administration haven’t given us much information, other than they’re working on a contract with them,” Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote said. “I’m frustrated its dragged on and on, and that we’ve paid money to keep bare bones staff operating at the zoo primarily to take care of the animals.”

The zoo closed to the public last fall. Since then, the city has kept workers there on a contractual basis to care for the animals and maintain the facilities.

Ward Two Councilman Melvin Priester is concerned that ZoOceanarium doesn’t have the right experience needed to manage the park. He also said he would not be comfortable giving the new managers more than what the city paid the Jackson Zoological Society, the zoo’s former managers.

Under that contract, which expired last year, the city paid the society a minimum of $880,000 a year for management services.

ZoOceanarium has worked on projects all over the world, but is typically involved in the design concept, construction and management.

In most cases, ZoOceanarium has had far more resources to work with than the city of Jackson will be able to make available for its zoo.

“This might not be in their wheelhouse,” he said.

Lumumba administration officials, though, are not worried.

“We had very deep discussions about that. They were very interested in what it would mean to take over a zoo that has been around 100 years,” Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine said. “The fact that we have a 100-year-old zoo, and the exhibits are laid out the way they are, they are very excited about that.” 

Blaine said members of the administration had not visited other sites managed by ZoOceanarium but had spoken with clients who gave the firm “good reviews.”

It was not known what clients the administration had spoken to.

He was not worried that ZoOceanarium had such little experience managing zoos in the U.S. 

“We did some investigating about other facilities and the like, and all that was positive,” he said. “It wasn’t a concern at all.”

The city issued a request for proposals (RFP) for zoo management in August 2018. ZoOceanarium was one of three firms that responded. 

Other proposals were submitted by the Jackson Zoological Society, and Zoo Managerial Services LLC.

Zoo Managerial Services, a Florence, Miss. group, was formed in October 2018, likely in response to the city’s RFP, and was dissolved in January 2019, according to Opencorporates.com.

The zoological society was the same nonprofit that had managed the park in its declining years and had announced plans to move.

“We were actually pleased with what we got,” Blaine said, referring to the number of bids submitted. “I have no reservations with where we are.”

No plans were made to issue a second request.

Opencorporates.com states that ZoOceanarium’s U.S. office is located in St. Louis, Mo., where it also helped oversee the design and construction of the new St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station.

The 120,000-square-foot facility opened last Christmas, according to television station KDSK.

Today, ZoOceanarium manages the aquarium, and has four full-time people working in its corporate office.

Internationally, ZoOceanarium has designed projects including Aquarium 63 Seaworld in North Korea, marine life attractions at Resorts World Singapore, and Green Planet, City Walk, Dubai.

ZoOceanarium saw Green Planet, an indoor rainforest, through construction and initial operations and recently handed it off to its client, the Dubai government.

“We do a lot of design consultancy. We have several projects that have not been announced yet,” said Chris Davis, the group’s managing director.

The director wouldn’t say what other projects ZoOceanarium was involved in.

Davis said the Jackson Zoo is a “great asset” but said it would ultimately need the community’s support to be a success. However, he wouldn’t say how his firm would build that support.

Attempts by the Jackson Zoological Society to increase the public’s backing for the West Jackson park fell flat, with efforts reaching their nadir last year.

The park closed its doors to the public on October 1, 2019, due to a lack of revenues and a lack of visitors.

Through June 30, 2019, fewer than 35,000 people visited the facility, a roughly 58 percent decline in visitors compared to the same period the year before.

Between 2007 and 2018, attendance at the park dropped by more than 100,000, going from 183,680 people in 2007 to just 74,000 in 2018, zoological society figures show.

To boost attendance, Davis said ZoOceanarium will first focus on “making quick changes to improve guest experience.”

However, he would not say what those changes would be. “It’s certainly a process,” he said. “We’re not going to change everything overnight.” 

Jeffrey Graves, who was president of the society when it announced it was studying relocating, said previously that ZoOceanarium wouldn’t be able change the zoo’s biggest deterrent – it’s location.

“The reason we voted to relocate was the inability to sustain a zoo of that size at that location,” he said.

The 54-acre park is located at 2918 W. Capitol St., an area that is characterized by significant blight.

Between the I-220 exit and the zoo’s main entrance, motorists drive by numerous burnt-out structures, abandoned homes and overgrown properties.

He said a 2016 study backed up the society’s decision to relocate.

The study, which was conducted by Schultz and Williams, determined that the location was the park’s biggest detractor, not only to visitors, but also to donors.

According to that report, “100 percent of people interviewed had concerns about donating to the zoo at its current location.”

Additionally, a “handful of interviewees shared that their gift would be much larger if the zoo were to move.”

The study was conducted to determine whether the park could raise money for significant new investments.

“Once we started doing feasibility studies, we realized the zoo was not sustainable (on Capitol Street),” Graves said. “A lot of traditional donors had flagged off what they had been giving to the zoo. They felt they couldn’t keep pouring money into a sinking ship.” 

Davis said he couldn’t speak to that study.

Blaine said the study was simply conducted as a pretense to move the park.

“That feasibility study was intended to misdiagnose the issue,” he said. “The relocation was never funded. There was never one penny for moving the zoo anywhere.”

The society had recommended moving the zoo to the golf course at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park. Moving the park would likely have cost tens of millions of dollars. Zoo leaders had not raised money for moving the park when it announced plans to study a move.

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