In March 2018, the Jackson Zoological Society announced that it was considering moving the zoo to Northeast Jackson, in an effort to save it.
Plans were to consider studying relocating the park to the golf course at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park.
The society argued that its surroundings were scaring off visitors and donors and pointed to studies to back up those claims.
Opponents of the move decried the announcement and said relocating the park would be a detriment to the already struggling West Jackson community.
More than two years later, the society’s management contract with the city of Jackson has expired, at presstime the city has yet to finalize an agreement with its replacement, and the zoo is closed.
The city was still on track to hire ZoOceanarium Group, a Dubai-based firm the administration picked to manage the facility.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said a final draft of the contract was drawn up in May and was being reviewed by the city and ZoOceanarium’s legal teams.
He told local media recently that the two groups had reached an “oral agreement.” However, he was not sure when the agreement would be finalized.
Whether the park will be able to survive with new management remains to be seen.
The zoo is located at 2918 W. Capitol St. It is surrounded by blight, with numerous abandoned structures lining the roadway on to the park.
Directly across the park’s main entrance is an abandoned commercial building that is covered in graffiti and surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Attendance has been dropping at the park for years. Between 2007 and 2018, the number of annual visitors fell by nearly 110,000. The following year, attendance was down another 30,000 when the park shut its doors October 1.
Noticing the decline, the society board of directors attempted to right the ship in 2014 and 2015, by drawing up a new master plan for the site.
The plan, drawn up by PJA Architects at a cost of $80,000, recommended $100 million in improvements to park, all of which would be designed to attract new visitors.
In 2016, the society brought on Schultz & Williams to determine whether those plans could be funded.
The study, which cost $35,000, determined that donors were not interested in investing the park, and citing its current location.
Among concerns, those interviewed said they were worried about investing in the park if the zoo was going to move anyway. Others were concerned that building new attractions would not guarantee an increase in attendance. Another person still said the zoo needed to move and refused “to invest in it at its current location.”
Numerous comments on Trip Advisor also derided the park’s current location. The first of three “traveler tips” listed on its Jackson Zoo page urges residents to “lock your doors in the parking lot and don’t leave anything visible.”
Jeffrey Graves was president of the zoological society at the time the study was conducted.
“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.”
The society’s contract expired on September 30, 2019. The city council did not renew it or extend it into the 2020 budget year, which began October 1. The zoo closed the same day, as the park’s USDA exhibitor’s license expired.
Since then, the city has kept on employees as contract workers to do maintenance and care for the animals. About 25 employees work at the facility. They do not receive benefits, such as health insurance or retirement.
ZoOceanarium Managing Director Chris Davis would not speak to the previous studies when the Sun spoke with him in February, and would not comment later when asked again.
Lumumba said the perception of problems in the area has been overblown. He points to the success of events like the park’s annual Ice Cream Safari and Zoo Brew, an annual craft beer festival held at the zoo.
Both events draw thousands of people to the park.
“People feel safe when they have beer and ice cream,” he said. “They’d feel safe any day if the zoo was appropriately marketed.”
The mayor said he has spoken with ZoOceanarium about how the firm could make patrons feel safe, such as providing additional security.
Part of the agreement also will include bringing in new attractions, to give people more of an incentive to come to the park.
He also discussed the city’s plans to improve the Capitol Street corridor. Among steps, the city is planning to repave West Capitol with funds from the city’s one-percent infrastructure tax bond. The city also plans to seek blight elimination funding from the state when it again becomes available.
Lumumba believes the zoo’s best days are ahead, with that park staying put in west Jackson. “The idea that it can’t succeed is a false narrative,” he said. “Once we improve the ride to the zoo and we improve the walk in the zoo, with attractions and exhibits, people will be coming back.”
Click on the link to see the blight around the Jackson Zoo: https://www.northsidesun.com/meet-zoos-neighbors-blight-around-jackson-zoo#sthash.sYmYGjLm.dpbs