No monkey business here

February 14, 2011
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John Ball Zoo Director Bert Vescolani said the dramatic growth and turnstile triumphs the zoo has had over the past half decade has forced county officials and the zoological society to take a second look at the organization’s current structure.

Under the present scheme, Kent County owns the assets, provides funds for operations and manages the zoo, while the zoological society performs the fundraising function, runs membership drives, markets the facility and provides educational activities. So, essentially, the zoo has two managers.

But a strategic plan, commissioned by the county and the society, shows the zoo should be managed by a single nonprofit organization, as 75 percent of the nation’s zoos already are being managed.

“I feel really good about looking at the future, making us viable for the long term, continuing the success that we’ve had, and doing it in a much more effective and efficient way,” said Vescolani, who will mark his sixth year as zoo director next month.

The plan, conducted by Schultz & Williams of Philadelphia, recommends creating a public-private governance structure that combines the collective resources of the county and the zoo society into a single entity.

“The timing is right for a shift in governance,” said Rick Biddle, vice president of Schultz & Williams. “What we look to do is create one single nonprofit organization to take responsibility for the zoo.”

The next step in that process is for the county to establish a transitional committee that will be charged with making suggestions on how to enact the managerial changes. Kent County commissioners will have to approve the final plan.

“The transitional committee will be looking at where we want the zoo to go and how we should structure it to get there. That committee will be appointed by the County Commission later this spring. It will be a joint committee of Kent County and the zoological society,” said Sandi Frost Parrish, county commission chairwoman.

Biddle said one goal of the consolidation effort is to strengthen the zoo’s financial status. Zoo operations are currently funded by the county’s general budget. Commissioners allocated slightly more than $4 million from that budget for zoo operations for the current fiscal year, up from $3.6 million in 2010 but down from $4.3 million in 2008.

“We’re dealing with this from a position of strength. Many communities deal with this when they’re in a financial crisis. We do see some financial trouble down the road, which is why we’re taking care of it now and trying to deal with it now while we are still dealing from a position of strength,” said Parrish.

By essentially working with one nonprofit, which would be similar to those that run local museums, Parrish said the zoo would have more funding alternatives than it has now. She also said a change isn’t being considered solely to relieve the county’s general fund of that expenditure.

“It will have much more flexible options than a governmental entity does to deal with the changing tides of the economy. I wouldn’t in any way couch it as an opportunity to take it out of the general fund,” she said.

One funding option the committee is likely to investigate is to ask voters to approve an operational millage that would provide the zoo with an annual revenue source. Zoo revenue topped $1.5 million a few years ago; that figure was more than double what it was in 2005.

Regarding zoo revenue, the county’s Finance Committee will decide on Tuesday whether to recommend raising the zoo’s admission fees across the board by $1, with the matter going to the full commission next week. If approved, the new fees would be $6.50 for children, $7.50 for seniors, and $8.50 for adults. Winter rates, which are in effect from the Monday after the Labor Day weekend through May 1, would also rise by 50 cents. The last time admission fees were increased at the zoo was in January 2008.

Vescolani said he has a hard-working, passionate and dedicated staff under the current management structure. He said that team has helped him set attendance records at the zoo, which has averaged 425,000 visitors annually for the past several years. But he also said he wasn’t certain if having a new organizational structure would allow the zoo to remain open all year, instead of closing during the winter as it has the past two years.

“I don’t know. That will be up to the whole economic and financial perspective. We’ll see. We ended up being able to stay open longer last year than we had estimated, based on a good summer, and maybe we’ll be able to do the same in the future,” said Vescolani, who added that the zoo reopens March 1.

The county will continue to own the facility under the new management group. Biddle said the county has had “tremendous success” with the zoo and he felt that success could be leveraged for the facility’s future. Vescolani has directed the zoo during what many feel has been its most successful period ever. The Business Journal asked if a new organization will have a place for him in management.

“That will be up to the transition committee,” he said. “I hope to be. But that will be up to them and to the direction the county decides and what they want to do. There still are a lot of decisions to be made. But whatever happens, we feel there is a good future there.”

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