POSTED ON JUNE 2, 2010:
Reorganization and privatizing will help rebuild a better Tulsa Zoo, officials contend
Happy Tails. Reorganizing under a nonprofit status would allow for greater fundraising efforts and a better Tulsa Zoo, such as the Penguins on Parade fundraiser, which raised funds for the new Africa black-footed penguin exhibit at the Zoo.
The first step in the reorganization of the Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum is expected to be completed this week with the naming of a board of directors for the new nonprofit organization that will oversee the zoo's transition to private governance.
Tulsa Community Foundation CEO Phil Lakin, who is leading a task force charged with orchestrating the zoo's governance and financial restructuring, said a board of directors for the newly created Tulsa Zoo Management Inc. likely will be in place sometime this week, but with the hiring of a transition coordinator as the board's first order of business.
A recent analysis of the zoo funded by the Tulsa Community Foundation called for the city to transition the zoo's governance from the city government's Park Department to a "star power" board charged with additional fundraising, with developing a strategic plan and with moving all employees under a single management entity, according to city officials.
Lakin said approximately 20 people had been approached about joining the new board, and eight of them had accepted the invitation by last week. He expected three to five others to say 'yes' by this week.
"Over the next four or five days, we expect to have the 11 to 13 members we need to have the governing board in place," he said on May 26.
The new board will meet almost immediately, he said, and will take up the issue of hiring a transition coordinator. Lakin said a handful of individuals already have been approached about filling that role; although one person seemed to be a particularly good fit.
"We need to have a board in place before the hiring of a transition coordinator can go forward," he said. "The person we have in mind has quite a bit of experience. But, ultimately, it will be TZMI's decision. And that will probably be done within the next 10 days."
Lakin said the transition coordinator will not be involved in day-to-day zoo operations and that the position is a temporary one.
"That will still be in the hands of the city of Tulsa zoo staff," he said. "The coordinator's job will be to help come up with a plan to cause the two sides to be merged together with the oversight of the board. At some point, the transition coordinator will no longer be needed."
Zoo Director Terrie Correll, who has been with the organization for a little more than a year, said the previous zoo she worked for was a totally private organization. She welcomes the changes that are in store for her aging zoo, which is dealing with infrastructure, maintenance and staffing shortcomings created by inadequate funding.
Many of those problems were outlined in a recent report from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a Silver Spring, Md.-based organization that accredits zoos and aquariums, ensuring that they maintain rigorous professional standards for animal welfare, veterinary care, wildlife conservation, scientific research, education, expert staffing and safety.
"So, for me, this public-private partnership would create a governance that would allow the zoo to be more flexible and strengthen our ability to go out and seek funding in ways we haven't been able to do," Correll said.
The new governance and financing structure should benefit the zoo -- which attracts approximately 600,000 visitors annually and features 2,800 animals -- by allowing it to grow, expand and improve in ways that have been limited under the current governance structure, she said.
"It is a formula for success," she said. "We will have increased funding. We'll be able to manage the zoo in a businesslike way that will be more efficient and more flexible."
Keegan Young -- executive director of Tulsa Zoo Friends, a group that supports the zoo by providing admissions, attractions, food and beverage, marketing, fundraising and other services -- said 70 percent of accredited zoos across the country already have made the transition to nonprofit management.
"We've known this day was coming for 20 years," he said of his organization, adding that Tulsa Zoo Friends long ago espoused such a reorganization.
"This is not new," he said of the trend toward nonprofit management. "In fact, we're very much behind the curve."
Young pointed out that while many visitors might be under the impression that the zoo is solely operated by the city, it has been, in fact, a public-private partnership between Tulsa Zoo Friends and the city for quite some time.
"We've been able to grow the zoo substantially over the last 20 years," he said. "However, as time has gone by, the constraints on funding are getting tighter and tighter, and our role has shifted from building a better zoo to maintaining the current zoo and subsidizing the city's traditional role."
That has led Tulsa Zoo Friends to take a larger role in the day-to-day operations of the zoo, including such functions as mowing, maintenance and custodial work, as opposed to building new exhibits.
In many cases, Zoo Friends employees work alongside the regular zoo staff. For instance, Young said that when Tulsa Zoo Friends built a new penguin exhibit, the city didn't have enough money to staff it. So Zoo Friends hired employees to run the exhibit.
But under the reorganization, all zoo workers will be managed by a single entity.
Correll acknowledged there was some trepidation about the new arrangement on the part of her staff.
"But I think everybody understands the need for the zoo to grow and address its infrastructure challenges as an older facility," she said. "The staff is totally dedicated to the zoo."
Those infrastructure challenges were made apparent to prospective board members during a recent "back of the house" tour of the zoo, Lakin said, referring to areas that are not normally seen by the public. He said the group saw many of the things cited in the AZA report, including areas that had been flooded several times, either by raw sewage or rain water, as well as rotted wooden cages for reptiles, exposed electrical wiring in proximity to open exhibits, and inadequate heating and cooling. Many of the zoo's exhibits date from the 1950s and 1960s, he said.
"It just looks like something that had just been rigged together by well-intentioned people doing the best they can but definitely not what you would want to have for our zoo," Lakin said.
One prospective board member was so concerned by what he saw that he voiced the opinion that no decent for-profit organization would let its facilities deteriorate to the condition that members of the group witnessed that day.
"You can't build something and then not have enough money to maintain it," Lakin said. "That's what has gone on at our zoo for a long time."
Lakin and Correll both emphasized those problems have developed in areas that aren't accessible by visitors, and that zoo officials have done a good job of keeping public areas well maintained and safe. Young said he doesn't want Tulsans to have a bad perception of the zoo, which he believes is about to embark on one of the more exciting periods in its history.
"We don't want any image out there that the zoo is falling apart," he said. "We have a lot of deferred maintenance, but we have a dedicated staff" that is doing everything it can, he said.
Young is particularly excited about the short-term future of the zoo. On June 18, Tulsa Zoo Friends will stage its 20th annual fundraiser, "Waltz on the Wild Side." And in August, work will begin on the latest Tulsa Zoo Friends-funded exhibit, the Helmerich Sea Lion Cove.
Additionally, Correll said the city has engaged an architect to begin designing a new Asian cats exhibit.
As for the new management structure itself, Young believes it will not be apparent to most zoo visitors.
"They shouldn't really see much of a change," he said.
But that's just in the near term, he and Correll said. Both are perhaps most excited about the increased fundraising opportunities the new arrangement will provide, a shift that will allow the zoo to begin addressing many of those deferred-maintenance issues, as well as engage in increased exhibit building.
New facilities would enhance the experience of many zoo visitors, Correll said, pointing to the zoo's current large cat grottoes as an example. Built in the 1960s, they were state of the art at the time but now pale in comparison to contemporary designs.
"In 2010, that's not the way you would display a large cat," she said. "You want that immersive experience with large windows where the cat comes in and lays down right next to the window. For children who have never experienced anything like that, that creates that sense of wonder."
Correll cited the St. Louis and Denver zoos as older zoos that recently underwent a reorganization and emerged with redesigned, more natural-looking exhibits.
Young said the improved fundraising opportunities will arise partly out of a change in perception. He believes people will be more willing to financially support the zoo when it is privately managed.
"There are definitely people in the community who look at the zoo as fully funded through taxpayer dollars," he said. "They don't understand that is a very limited amount of funding that continues to shrink. I think people are more willing to give when they see the needs and see it's under the care of a nonprofit manager, as opposed to being under the care of a government entity."
Lakin said the zoo needs $500,000 to $1 million in new money each year to hire more staff members and zookeepers, and maintain the exhibits.
"And we know we have capital needs out there in the tens of millions of dollars," he said.
Another change that could be on the horizon for the zoo is some sort of partnership with a local college or university, he said, pointing to the relationship that blossomed between the University of Tulsa and the Gilcrease Museum when that facility underwent a shift to private management.
"That's a working laboratory for kinds of students now," Lakin said of Gilcrease. "Why not try to have such a scenario play out for students at (Oklahoma State University) or any other interested university?"
How fast the reorganization happens remains to be seen, but he's hoping for a quick transition.
"We've got a whole lot of work to do, and we don't have a whole lot of time," Lakin said of the transition to private governance. "We want to be done within the next two or three months. This is really a negotiation between the city, which is the largest donor, and the new TZMI board."
Young said his organization is eager for the change to take place.
"We've been gearing up for several months to be ready for the transition so it can go as quickly as possible," he said. "It boils down to the willingness of the private sector to make the transition happen."
Correll simply foresees better days ahead for her facility, which has had its image battered by the high-profile deaths of two giraffes in recent months -- the impetus for the AZA inspection and report. The inspectors credited the zoo's veterinary staff for its care of the animals despite their eventual death.
"When I see the Tulsa Zoo, I know what it can become," Correll said. "It's kind of a diamond in the rough, and it needs some TLC, but it has a dedicated staff. We all know what it could be. And it still is a wonderful place for families to enjoy the day."
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A30620