POSTED ON OCTOBER 27, 2010:
Bungle in the Jungle
The Tasmanian Devil is in the details as Tulsa Zoo drags its paws going from city-to-private management
Ice Melt Needed. “The glacial pace of municipal government is not conducive to merging a zoo.” said Keegan Young, ED of TZMI. “When you’re merging an operation that has a living collection and a half-million guests (annually), you must be flexible and dynamic. You must also be efficient.”
The planned transition of the Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum from a city-owned and --operated entity to a private management structure is taking longer than expected, but those working on the switch continue to believe the move ultimately will be a success.
The transition has been in the works since last spring with the creation of Tulsa Zoo Management Inc., a nonprofit organization that is taking over the running of the zoo, as recommended in an analysis of the facility by the Tulsa Community Foundation. The move is intended to address many of the problems at the aging facility, which is dealing with infrastructure, maintenance and staffing shortcomings created by long-term inadequate funding.
a board of directors has been put together, and over the past several months, it has hired Thomas Baker, to oversee the transition.
"It's been busy, as you probably would imagine," Baker said of the atmosphere since he came on board in August. "There's been a lot of information to gather and process ... It's not going as quickly as we would like, but we're moving forward, and that's what we're trying to do."
In May, many of those associated with the transition said they hoped it would take only 60 to 90 days. That deadline came and went without having been met, but that doesn't mean the transition is stalled, said Keegan Young, executive director of TZMI.
"It's telling," Young said of the longer-than-anticipated time frame for the transition. "When you're merging an operation that has a living collection and a half-million guests (annually), you must be flexible and dynamic. You must also be efficient. And the glacial pace of municipal government is not conducive to merging a zoo."
The negotiation of a management contract between TZMI and the city has been perhaps the main factor in slowing down the transition, Young said.
"That's the pivot point on all of this," he said. "While we strive to negotiate a management contract, Tom has been trying to get all the other pieces together."
Under the new scenario, the city would continue to own the zoo, but TZMI would operate it, and zoo employees would work for the nonprofit organization. The creation of a benefits and compensation package for zoo employees that would closely resemble the package the city offers them now is being hammered out as part of those negotiations.
For now, some members of the zoo staff continue to work for the city, while others remain in the employ of TZMI, which formerly was known as Tulsa Zoo Friends -- an organization that was created many years ago to provide support for the zoo in the areas of admissions, attractions, food and beverage, marketing, fundraising and other services. Once the transition is complete, the two employee groups will be merged into one, all working for TZMI.
"The success of that part of it will play a big part in the overall success of the transition," Baker said. "If we don't get that part right, it will affect the possibilities of success of the new organization."
Baker said he expects the transition to be complete four to six weeks after the new management agreement is in place. He said he always had his doubts that the original timeline for the completion of the merger was a realistic one.
"I had talked to a couple of people who had been through something like this before and knew what it was like," he said. "As far as the 90 days, they didn't think that was possible. One of them even told me it would take six months to a year, although I don't think it'll be that long."
Baker said groundwork on the transition actually began in November 2009, and many of those associated with the change may have believed they were farther along in the process than they were. A formidable list of tasks remained, he said -- in addition to putting together the compensation and benefits package for employees and negotiating a contract with the city, a list of zoo assets had to be compiled and validated, while it also had to be determined what utilities, maintenance and other services the zoo receives from the city.
"There's just been a lot of operational issues that haven't been resolved," he said.
Young said he wasn't worried or discouraged that the transition has taken longer than expected, explaining that the establishment of the original timeline merely illustrated TZMI's aggressiveness.
"And we'll continue to go after it aggressively until things are done," he said.
He said he doesn't mind missing a deadline if that means the difference in ensuring the transition is done right.
"Our whole goal is to put the zoo on a much firmer foundation," Young said. "It's not just about saving the zoo today, it's about saving the zoo for decades to come."
He also praised the work done by the TZMI board and by Baker in particular.
"Tom Baker has been a gift from heaven," he said. "He's not only got the intelligence to do the job, he's got the network and connections and personality to guide us across the Rubicon."
One recent development has ensured that the transition won't drag on indefinitely, but it might be a case of hurry up and wait. Zoo officials learned earlier this month that their status as an Association of Zoos & Aquariums-accredited facility had been tabled, giving the facility until September 2011 to meet AZA standards. In the meantime, the zoo will remain an AZA-accredited facility.
In a letter to Terrie Correll, director of the Tulsa Zoo, Bruce Bohmke, chairman of the organization's Accreditation Commission, stated that a number of issues regarding the Tulsa Zoo are still in progress and need to be resolved, including the status of its financial support, the status of its governance and transition plan, the status of its organizational agreements, the status of its organizational structure, staffing levels and progress in addressing physical facilities.
The commission will meet again in September to consider the zoo's long-term accreditation.
That announcement was what Tulsa Zoo officials expected, but it brings a sense of urgency to the transition process, since AZA accreditation is viewed as crucial to the zoo's future.
"I think so," Correll said of the AZA's action. "It focuses on what we need to do and take care of in order to progress and get accreditation."
She emphasized that zoo officials are aware of the facility's shortcomings and what the AZA's expectations are.
"It's all achievable -- every one of the items on that list of concerns in their letter to us," she said. "All of those are achievable things ... From my perspective, having worked at previous organizations that could be considered premier organizations . . .
"I have a good understanding of what we at the Tulsa Zoo could be doing in regard to education, serving as a place for the public to spend time and make memories or playing a greater role in conservation projects."
Young said he thought the AZA letter was right on target.
"I think it also points out in a very visible way the struggles we are having and have been having at the zoo, not only in funding, but in governance," he said.
The idea of operating the zoo under a different management structure is nothing new, he said, citing the fact that 70 percent of accredited zoos across the country already have made the shift to nonprofit management. That idea originally was floated in Tulsa in 1994 by a mayoral task force examining problems at the zoo, but it didn't go anywhere, he said.
"We simply didn't have the political will to move forward," he said. "Since that time, funding at the zoo has deteriorated, and so has the zoo -- to the point that we're in crisis mode."
Young said a lack of attention to the zoo by city officials forced the private sector -- namely Tulsa Zoo Friends -- to step in and help fill the gaps. But even the assistance that organization provided has not been enough to prevent serious problems at the zoo, which struggled with the high-profile deaths of two giraffes in the last year.
"We've been using duct tape and baling wire to hold the zoo together," Young said. "That got us where we are today."
Resolving the issue of long-term AZA accreditation is very important, he said, because the Tulsa Zoo would not able to swap animals for breeding and display purposes with accredited zoos without it. The Accreditation Commission will take up the Tulsa Zoo's status in September, and a follow-up inspection of the facility by AZA officials will need to take place prior to that meeting, Bohmke wrote.
"We've got 12 months to turn this thing around," Young said. "If we lose our accreditation, we lose our zoo -- no ifs, ands or buts."
A more stable funding strategy for the zoo also must be identified and pursued, Young said. Even so, he said he is excited about the future.
"It's going to take leadership and the support of the community to rally behind this organization and turn it around," he said. "I'm really, really energized by the private sector leadership that has stepped forward in support of the zoo. I truly believe the next decade will be the most aggressive expansion in the zoo's history."
Correll was just as optimistic.
"I am," she said. "I don't have any reason not to be at this point. I think everybody has the best interests of the zoo in mind."
The zoo director asked for the public's patience as the transition moves forward.
"We need the community's support, and they can show their support by coming out and visiting us and letting us show them a little bit about animals and nature," she said.
For now, Baker said the focus of the transition effort remains simple -- getting the board and the city to agree on that management contract. He emphasized no one should expect that process to be a simple one, especially given the financial constraints both are facing.
"You've got two parties negotiating an agreement," he said. "If they reach an agreement, we'll go forward. If they don't, we won't. Negotiations can go a lot of different ways sometimes."
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