‘It was a very tough decision’: ZoOceanarium pulls out of talks with Jackson
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Two years after Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba tapped ZoOceanarium Group to take over management of the Jackson Zoological Park, the firm has pulled out of negotiations.
ZoOceanarium Managing Partner Chris Davis confirmed the news with WLBT Wednesday morning.
“It was a very tough decision for us to make, but indeed, after participating in two and a half years of good faith negotiations, we did let the city know that we will not be further pursuing the operations of the zoo,” he said in an email.
Mayor Lumumba called the decision unfortunate but shared some optimism.
“In the past year, we’ve gone from our zoo being closed to regaining our USDA license to having a successful limited reopening. Momentum has not stopped on improvements and investment in the park. It is unfortunate that the contract with ZoOceanarium Group did not work out. But, we are confident in our team. We are looking forward to expanding our hours for the zoo this May and to bringing a full schedule back by the end of the summer. We encourage everyone to come out to visit and support the Jackson Zoo. Detailed information about hours, tickets and events can be found at www.jacksonzoo.org.”
The news comes more than four months after ZoOceanarium officials were grilled at a city council meeting, where members raised concerns about the firm’s proposed contract.
Among concerns, Ward Seven Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay asked why the contract did not include provisions requiring the new managers to obtain accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Accreditation shows that the zoo is meeting certain standards in animal care and best practices. AZA accreditation is often considered the gold standard for accreditation and would allow the zoo to participate in programs like the AZA’s Species Survival Program, which could bring new animals to the park.
The contract had not been presented to the council for approval.
“Over the time we have been engaged with the city, we encountered voices of hope and optimism about the zoo’s future and about how our involvement would help change the trajectory of the zoo,” Davis said. “Certainly, Mayor Lumumba’s vision for the zoo was inspirational and very much so aligned with our own.”
Davis, though, said ZoOceanarium had gotten pushback from some council members.
“There were a few council members who were hostile towards the idea of the zoo being managed by an experienced third-party management team,” he said.
Though he did not mention those council members by name, he intimated that one of them was Lindsay, saying the council member was “repeatedly voicing her disapproval of me even being present” during that December meeting.
Lindsay, a former zoo board member, said she merely asked questions about measurement and accountability.
“I did not think it was unreasonable to ask that an organization have in the contract, that they would at least pursue AZA accreditation,” Lindsay told 3 On Your Side. “If that became the sticking point, then it is probably in everyone’s best interest that we move forward with looking for a different management company.”
Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote took offense to Davis’ statement blaming city council members for the decision to part ways, even though the council had no role in the negotiations between ZoOceanarium and the city.
”They didn’t focus on the people they were negotiating with. That’s a shame on them,” Foote said. “I thought was a very unprofessional letter to throw the council under the bus when we weren’t involved in negotiations.”
Lumumba told WLBT Wednesday that he did not want to go into detail on why ZoOceanarium withdrew from negotiations.
“Some of those negotiations, some of the concerns of the council, I think were sincere. But you know, some of the things that ZoOceanarium felt that they could or did not want to do became a bit of a challenge. And that happens in contract negotiations. Occasionally, when you negotiate contracts, the parties cannot agree on a deal,” Lumumba said.
The zoo was previously managed by the Jackson Zoological Society. In the last two decades, though, the zoo had gone into steep decline.
Between 2007 and 2018, attendance fell from 184,000 to 74,000. And in July 2019, an analysis by WLBT showed that attendance had fallen off by an additional 30,000 when compared to the same period the year prior.
Citing the decline, the society announced that it was going to study building a new zoo in Northeast Jackson.
That announcement sparked debate across the city, and was the impetus behind the mayor’s decision to seek new management.
The society’s contract expired in 2020 and was not renewed. The city’s parks department has been managing the park ever since.
Davis said he hopes to work with Jackson in the future, and believes the trajectory of the zoo must change for it to be successful.
“Our interest has always been the wellbeing of the animals at the zoo, bringing stability to the caring staff that is responsible for those animals and preserving this very unique and important asset of the community,” he said.
“After two and half years of negotiations to try to make this happen, we were still getting hostile pushback, and sadly don’t see a collaborative pathway forward.”
Lumumba said the city’s parks department would continue to manage the zoo while they look for a firm that can manage the facility.
“What we feel at this time, is that we are still on a positive trajectory. And we are fully capable of being able to execute a better service and a better attraction in the zoo,” Lumumba said. “We were able to get our USDA licensing, we were able to make improvements at the zoo, we’ve been able in our limited schedule to see a robust turnout to visit the zoo. And we look forward to opening that up for more days and more frequently.”
The full statement from Chris Davis is shown below:
It was a very tough decision for us to make but indeed, after participating in two and half years of good faith negotiations, we did let the City know that we will not be further pursuing the operations of the zoo.
Over the time we have been engaged with the City, we encountered voices of hope and optimism about the Zoo’s future and about how our involvement would help change the trajectory of the Zoo. That included Councilman Tillman as well as people in the Mayor’s office. Certainly, Mayor Lumumba’s vision for the zoo was inspirational, and very much so aligned with our own.
Unfortunately, it became clear to us that despite Mayor Lumumba’s efforts and good intentions and our continued good faith discussions, there were a few council members who were hostile towards the idea of the zoo being managed by an experienced third-party management team.
In the last City Council meeting, that I was asked to attend by the Mayor’s office, there was one council member in particular who was hostile towards me personally, repeatedly voicing her disapproval of me even being present. Again, a meeting that I had been requested by the Mayor’s office to attend.
Zoos are treasured community assets. In order for the Zoo to succeed, it is going to take the community coming together to support it. The trajectory of the zoo needs to be reversed; its decline started during the last management company’s involvement, was heightened by the long delay between contracts, and was multiplied by the challenges caused by the pandemic. If there are council members who disparage the zoo and are hostile towards anyone whose sole goal is to make it successful, then we are not set up to succeed.
Our interest has always been the wellbeing of the animals at the zoo, bringing stability to the caring staff that is responsible for those animals, and preserving this very unique and important asset of the community. After two and half years of negotiations to try to make this happen, we were still getting hostile pushback, and sadly don’t see a collaborative pathway forward.
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