The ongoing budget problems associated with the Jackson Zoo came to a head this month with the City of Jackson taking over the zoo from the Jackson Zoological Society which had run the zoo for 35 years. Things had gotten so bad, the society had failed to pay its city water bill running up an unpaid balance of $6 million.
Unfortunately, the city is not in a good financial position to take on new problems, evidenced by the city’s desire to treat 20 zoo employees as independent contractors rather than full-time employees until a contract is approved with ZoOceanarium Group, LLC, to run the zoo. Not only is this strategy probably in violation of employment laws, it’s unfair to the zoo employees many of whom have worked there for decades. It’s just a big can of worms.
Zoos have always relied on government subsidies. Many of the buildings at the Jackson Zoo were first erected under the WPA program during the Great Depression. The Jackson Zoo has always relied on a combination of city, state and federal funds to supplement admission tickets and charitable contributions.
When Jackson was booming, it could be the major funder of the zoo. But times have changed. Suburban flight has eroded the tax base of Jackson while Rankin and Madison counties have boomed. The Jackson Zoo needs a new location and a new funding mechanism, either through the state or a tri-county agreement.
It’s hard to walk away from a lost investment, but the current zoo location will never do. It’s in a rough neighborhood that discourages visitors. The ideal location is the Lefleur’s Bluff State Park which has a nine-hole golf course that is rarely used because it is so poorly maintained. The zoo needs to move to that location where it can be promoted in conjunction with the Mississippi Children’s Museum and the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, as well as the beautiful walking trails found there. This site is at the intersection of I-55 and Highway 25, both busy six-lane traffic arteries, creating an almost ideal location in every respect.
Jackson cannot afford to run the zoo. Ultimately, the option will be to close it or to relocate it with a new source of state and/or regional funding. It’s time for our local and state leadership to take the initiative to make this happen. Surely among the mayors, supervisors, city council members, legislators, state elected officials and state agency heads, there must be someone who can take the initiative and lead.