JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson Ward Seven Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay raised concerns at a meeting on Thursday as to why a proposed contract for zoo management does not include provisions requiring the new managers to obtain accreditation.
On Thursday, the Jackson City Council held a special meeting to discuss a proposed contract for the ZoOceanarium Group.
No action was taken, and the council is expected to bring the contract up again at a later meeting.
The Lumumba administration has been in talks with the firm for nearly two years, in hopes that it will take over management of the Jackson Zoological Park.
A copy of the proposed contract was presented to the council for review recently.
For her part, Lindsay was concerned that a requirement to help the Jackson Zoo obtain accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) had been scratched from the contract.
Accreditation shows that the zoo is meeting certain standards in animal care and best practices. AZA accreditation gives organizations the ability to participate in its Species Survival Program, which could bring new animals to the park.
“To totally take it out is a worry to me,” she said. “If they’re doing what they say they’re going to do, to bring the zoo up to certain standards and to bring the animal collection up to a higher level, that would automatically lend itself to AZA accreditation.
“Those are things that AZA is looking for. I don’t think the two goals are mutually exclusive. In fact, they work hand-in-hand together.”
ZoOceanarium Managing Partner Chris Davis said there is a “financial component” to obtaining AZA accreditation, and that his firm’s first goal would be stabilizing the park and increasing its finances.
“From our standpoint it is (best) to be AZA accredited,” he said. “But as Mayor Lumumba mentioned, it has to be a process. Quite honestly, we don’t know if that’s going to take six months or four years.
Davis said improving the zoo’s finances also will be a challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even when we’re talking about corporate donations for upgrading facilities and building new exhibits, everybody in every one of our facilities are shrugging their shoulders (asking) is the money going to be available,” he said. “We don’t have that answer right now. To put AZA at the very top of that list would be, in our opinion, counterproductive to the viability of the zoo at this moment.”
The West Jackson park is currently accredited by the Zoological Association of America. However, the park’s former managers gave up AZA accreditation, in part, because of its financial challenges.
Lindsay went on to say that she was uncomfortable meeting with ZoOceanarium officials on Thursday because the city attorney was unavailable.
“I wish we could have postponed the meeting until we had the opportunity to have our attorney, who has been working on this for a long time,” she said. “I have read this contract, and I have questions, and many of those need to be answered by the city attorney.”
City Attorney Tim Howard was currently out sick and unable to attend.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the goal of Thursday’s meeting was not to take action, but to give council members the opportunity to “air out concerns” related to ZoOceanarium and the contract itself.
The mayor went on to ask Davis if he would be opposed to provisions requiring “reasonable efforts” to obtain zoo accreditation as part of the contract.
“Standing here, I’m not opposed to that,” Davis said.
Lumumba and Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine discussed other terms of the agreement as well.
Among them, the contract would be for a five-year period. During that time, the city would pay the firm $1.2 million a year to manage the park, with payments to ZoOceanarium made each quarter.
Meanwhile, ZoOceanarium would receive 90 percent of profits sold from tickets, gift shop sales, food and other items.
The zoo property, facilities and any improvements would remain property of the city of Jackson. However, ZoOceanarium would have the ability to buy, sell and breed animals on the city’s behalf.
Lindsay and Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote raised concerns about the contract’s water billing provisions.
Under the agreement, the city would charge ZoOceanarium a flat fee for water usage.
Lindsay was unsure whether the city could charge a flat rate for water legally.
Foote questioned why Jackson would give ZoOceanarium that deal when the city previously sued the Jackson Zoological Society for not making water payments.
“Back when the previous folks managed it, we sued the zoo and board members individually who were working as volunteers, about the water billing,” he said. “We would be pilloried in the public sphere if we cut a deal.”
Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine reminded Foote that the previous lawsuit was brought “because they paid zero dollars in water bills.”
“What we are doing is setting up a payment plan that is actually based on the size of the zoo. We have gone from receiving nothing to receiving payments for water,” he said.
Determining water usage at the park is difficult, in large part, due to the number of leaks.
“We know there are several leaks at the zoo and there are several exhibits that leak water. So we compared our zoo to zoos of comparable size across the country,” Blaine said. “We based our usage fee off of the consumption patterns of a comparable zoo in South Carolina.”
Foote also asked how ZoOceanarium could turn the park around when its subsidy is not much larger than what the city paid the society.
“Some of the problems are beyond everyone’s control. We have a lot of migration out of that part of Jackson, and blight in that part of Jackson has been a negative as far as people wanting to come to the zoo,” he said. “What are some of the things you’re going to do turn that trend around on close to the same amount of money the city was spending before?”
The city previously paid the society a minimum of $880,000 a year, $320,000 less than it plans to pay ZoOceanarium.
Davis said his group would focus their energies on “making a worthwhile attraction in the capital city.”
He said that work would include offering new exhibits, such as feeding stations, which would generate more revenue and help get the zoo on a more stable financial footing.
The mayor added that much of the subsidy provided to the zoological society went to legal fees, rather than marketing and adding exhibits.
He said that shifting those resources to marketing likely would increase attendance at the park. He added that blight does not stop people from coming to the park for special events, like the annual Ice Cream Safari.
“When we have events at the zoo, people come out,” Lumumba said. “People want that experience, but it requires that we put into it what we want to get out of it.”