Nearly six months after it closed to the public, the city of Jackson has spent an estimated $500,000 to maintain and operate the Jackson Zoological Park.
The west Jackson park closed to the public October 1, after its USDA permit expired.
Since then, the city has kept on employees as contract workers to do maintenance and care for the animals. The zoo has approximately 250 animals.
Because it’s closed, the park is generating no income from ticket sales, concession sales or gift sales.
Meanwhile, the city continues negotiations with the ZoOceanarium Group, an international firm tapped by the Lumumba administration to take over park management.
The city has been in talks with the firm for more than a year.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba had hoped to finalize the contract in mid-February. That date was later moved to mid-March.
ZoOceanarium officials came to the city last week to finalize terms.
However, no agreement had been finalized at press time, according to Parks and Recreation Director Ison Harris.
Harris said the city is not deterred by the slow progress of the talks.
“We want to make sure we get the best deal for the city,” he said.
Because of ongoing negotiations, few details of the agreement were being released.
Harris said the contract would likely be similar to the city’s previous agreement with the Jackson Zoological Society.
The society operated the park until last year, when its contract with the city was not renewed.
Under that agreement, the city would allocate a minimum of $880,000 to the society to help pay for park operations and maintenance.
Revenues from ticket sales, concessions, gift store sales and the like would also go back into the park to cover operations, maintenance and capital improvements.
The society, in turn, was required to give the city an annual audit showing how monies were spent.
Even with the society disbanded, $1 million dollars was allocated for park operations as part of Jackson’s 2020 budget, Harris said.
“The mayor didn’t want anyone to lose their job, so we had the zoo’s 27 or 28 employees stay on as contract workers,” Harris said. “That money has gone to salaries, animal care and supplies.”
In addition, the city has spent around $120,000 in state bond funds to bring the park up to USDA standards.
To open to the public, the city must receive an exhibitor’s license from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Both the city and ZoOceanarium are seeking a license.
The previous license, which had belonged to the society, was up for renewal when the society disbanded. It was non-transferrable, meaning it could not be turned over to the city or ZoOceanarium.
USDA officials inspected the zoo in January as a courtesy to the city. The agency identified a list of about 30 items that needed to be corrected before a new license would be granted, Lumumba said.
Once those improvements are made, the city will bring back USDA for the formal inspections.
“One of the primary things was clearing trees from the fence line,” he said.
The trees in question are located along the zoo’s perimeter fence.
Federal officials worried if animals get out of their exhibits, they could climb the trees and jump the fence, Lumumba explained.
The mayor said that project has been delayed in large part because of the wet weather.
“If we get several consecutive days of dry weather, we’ve got the equipment and it’s ready to roll,” he said.
Harris said the heavy rains this year have slowed much of the efforts to bring the park into compliance with federal requirements.
Other projects included installing new air conditioning and heating units in the primate exhibit, making roof and ceiling repairs to the animal hospital building and painting animal enclosures.
Painting is a challenge, because animals are not allowed back into their enclosures until after the paint is dry, Harris explained.
While that progress has been slow, the city has made progress elsewhere. Jackson worked with Revitalize Mississippi to tear down the previous discovery zoo building.
The discovery zoo was located at the zoo’s main entrance and included a barn, where patrons could get up-close encounters with pigs, chickens and other livestock.
Revitalize tore down the dilapidated building free of charge. Jackson is now planning to bid out the construction of a new discovery zoo. That project, too, will likely be paid for with state bond money.
Jackson had to repay some $350,000 to Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration, after it was discovered the previous executive director misused bond money awarded to the zoo to make capital improvements.
After the funds were repaid, they were set aside in a special account by DFA, which the city can still draw down from to make improvements.
Harris said the new discovery zoo likely will not be completed before the zoo reopens.
The administration hopes to schedule a second USDA visit for the sometime in April and open sometime this summer.
“The goal is to get a few more of the big items completed and then call them for the follow-up inspection,” Harris said. “If we could get a break in the weather, we could get a lot of work done.”