Having climbed a proverbial mountain in helping oversee the transition of the Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum from a city-owned and --operated entity to a private management structure, Keegan Young is now ready to go climb some real mountains.
Come May 6, he'll begin his new job with the American Alpine Club in Golden, Colo. The nonprofit organization advocates for and protects climbing spaces, and supports the climbing lifestyle. Excited as Young is about the next step in his life, he knows he wouldn't feel good about making the move if he hadn't helped lead the zoo past a slippery slope of problems and on to more solid foundation over the past few years.
"It's a great time for me to move on personally," Young said last week as the zoo moved past the 100-day mark under its new management structure, which was initiated Jan. 1. "I feel great that I was able to be here and that I'm not walking out in the middle of the process. We got something very big done for the zoo."
Headin’ for the Mountains. “Without a doubt, I believe the next 10 years will be the most aggressive
renovation and expansion period the zoo has ever seen,” said Keegan Young, longtime executive director of
Tulsa Zoo Friends Inc.
Young was the longtime executive director of Tulsa Zoo Friends Inc., a nonprofit group that provided admissions, attractions, food and beverage, marketing, fundraising and other services for the zoo, which was struggling badly in the face of declining financial support from the cash-strapped city government. Following a recommendation from the Tulsa Community Foundation, the operation of the zoo was taken over this year by the newly created Tulsa Zoo Management Inc., which was essentially a merger of the zoo staff and Tulsa Zoo Friends. That arrangement is expected to provide the zoo with fundraising opportunities that weren't available to it before and allow it to address a number of deficiencies that had brought its accreditation through the Association of Zoos & Aquariums into question.
"We very much are embarking on a new era for the zoo," Young said. "Without a doubt, I believe the next 10 years will be the most aggressive renovation and expansion period the zoo has ever seen. The zoo is now on very stable ground financially. We'll be able to take care of our deferred maintenance, replace our outdated, crumbling infrastructure and build some world-class exhibits that are very cutting edge for Tulsa. I have no doubt that as we get to 2020, this zoo is going to be a leading zoo for the nation."
The new management structure is only the beginning of the changes in store at the zoo. A series of construction projects is underway, and a new master plan is being formulated. Additionally, TZMI is seeking an executive director and faces a July 1 deadline for having that individual hired.
But the reorganization already appears to be bearing fruit. Because the city was unable to adequately fund the zoo's operations for the last several years, a long list of maintenance needs had to be put off, leaving many facilities out of the public eye in shockingly bad condition, facing such issues as flooding, exposed wiring and rotting cages. Since Jan. 1, those problems have been addressed in an aggressive fashion, Young said, and he estimated 95 percent of the work has been completed.
All that deferred maintenance was a major reason why the zoo's standing as an AZA-accredited facility was left up in the air. In October 2010, zoo officials learned their facility's reaccreditation application had been tabled for a year by the Silver Springs, Md.-based organization because the zoo had fallen well short of AZA standards in many areas. Tulsa Community Foundation CEO Phil Lakin, who led the task force that orchestrated the restructuring, said in June 2010 the zoo needed between $500,000 and $1 million in new money every year to hire more staff members and zookeepers, as well as maintain its exhibits.
Losing its accreditation would be disastrous for the zoo, according to zoo director Terrie Correll, who described the designation as "the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." Without that accreditation, which establishes standards of care, the Tulsa Zoo would be unable to partner with other zoos to swap animals for breeding and display purposes.
AZA officials also were concerned about the zoo's financial standing and wanted to see that addressed through a new management structure. Young believes the zoo is now well positioned to go back before the AZA accreditation committee in September and expect a positive result.
"I think the AZA will be elated with our progress in August when they do a site inspection," he said.
Correll believes the zoo is in much better condition now than it was a year ago.
"We have worked diligently to address their infrastructure concerns," she said. "And the change in governance will give the zoo some real financial stability to build on. So I am optimistic we have addressed that for them and that we'll be ready for the inspection team."
The zoo began one of its busiest periods last month, Correll said, when local school districts held spring break. Typically, attendance climbs for the next few months as the weather improves, slowing down only during the hottest times before picking up again in the fall.
Evolution of Species. “This is like a cruise ship we’re turning around here, and it’s not going to turn
around on a dime,” said Terrie Correll, Tulsa Zoo director. “It’s going to take several years to make these
changes, but we’re starting to see these now.”
FILE PHOTO/GAVIN ELLIOTT
All those visitors are likely to notice a number of changes, she said. The new Helmerich Sea Lion Cove is being constructed, and improvements to the giraffe viewing platform are nearing completion. A renovation of the giraffe barn -- which became a priority after a giraffe died of hypothermia during a bitter cold streak in January 2010 -- has been finished, as have upgrades to the reptile building. The zoo's entry bridge has been rebuilt, and Correll believes guests will find the zoo's restrooms and other public facilities much cleaner because the organization was able to fill some custodial positions that had been frozen by the city.
Within a few months, she said, the zoo will start using a new staffing plan that may allow it to fill many of the dozen positions that were eliminated in early 2010 when the city instituted across-the-board cutbacks.
"When the new budget year starts, we'll be looking at reinstating some of those," she said. "We'll be examining whether those positions make sense for the new zoo. An example of that would be the curator of birds. I think we know we need that."
When the management transition took place in January, Correll said zoo employees were given the choice of going to work for TZMI or remaining with the city and being transferred to another department. A handful of longtime workers chose to stay with the city, she said, because of concerns about their retirement benefits, but most opted to stay with the zoo. Any trepidation that existed over that shift quickly evaporated, she said.
"We told them their jobs would be the same, and they've seen that," she said. "It's business as normal."
Young said the atmosphere at the zoo is much improved. He previously has noted that 70 percent of AZA-accredited zoos are privately managed.
"There's just really a lot of positive energy, a lot of optimism," he said. "All of that angst has gone away. There was a time not too long ago when we had a lot of uncertainty due to the city's budget troubles and what the transition would bring, such as some rumored layoffs. But now that we've been into it for a while, people can trust we're on stable ground."
Young said he has always found his work on behalf of the zoo very rewarding, and that is something he'll miss.
"With a nonprofit, you're there because you're working for people who believe in the same mission," he said. "Of course, you take that to a whole new level at a zoo."
Correll said the overall look of the zoo -- which is home to 2,800 animals and attracts 600,000 visitors annually -- could change dramatically in the years to come, depending on what direction the new master plan takes. PGAV Destinations -- a planning and design firm based in St. Louis that counts such attractions as Grand Canyon National Park, the Pyramids of Gaza, Niagara Falls and SeaWorld among its clients -- has been hired to oversee that process, which Correll estimated would take six months.
"Once we get that master plan in place, we'll know where our African section will be, for instance," she said. "We'll have a footprint for different sections of the zoo."
Even so, those changes will emerge gradually, she said.
"This is like a cruise ship we're turning around here, and it's not going to turn around on a dime," Correll said. "It's going to take several years to make these changes, but we're starting to see these now."
Another significant change will be the hiring of an executive director. Zoo spokesperson Angela Evans said the TZMI board has put together a search committee that is reviewing resumes from candidates across the country with an eye toward filling that position by July 1, when it is required to do so under its contract with the city.
Zoo officials are also looking forward to a pair of fundraising events they hope bring their organization more good news. The zoo's inaugural benefit golf tournament will be held Monday, April 25 at the Patriot Golf Club in Owasso, while its annual "Waltz on the Wild Side" event will be held in June.
Young long has maintained that people are more inclined to donate money to privately managed organizations than those that are publicly operated. As negotiations over the new management contract were dragging on last fall, he described the zoo as being in crisis mode and said many of its facilities were being held together by duct tape and baling wire.
Now, six months later, he seems to have put those concerns behind him.
"It's exceeded my expectations," he said of the transition. "Thanks to the contributions of the city of Tulsa, specifically Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr., and our board of directors, specifically Phil Lakin, we got this thing done, and I think we did it right. Some of these things potentially could have caused trouble, but that didn't happen. We've had a lot of people working in the right direction with the right attitude, and they managed to put their differences aside, and we got this deal done. I am not aware of another zoo that tried this where it went so smoothly."
Tulsa officials previously have cited Denver and St. Louis as examples of how older zoos have made the shift to private management and emerged much stronger. Young believes Tulsa now will replace them at the top of the list.
"I think we're going to be the template for those zoos out there who need to get something done like this," he said.
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