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Dallas Officials Consider Privatization Proposal for Zoo, Aquarium

Leonard Gilroy
August 3, 2009, 4:27pm

Rudolph Bush and David Flick at the Dallas Morning News reported last week that Dallas officials are considering a proposal by the nonprofit Dallas Zoological Society to take over operations and management of the Dallas Zoo:

Mayor Tom Leppert said Wednesday that it's time to shift the zoo's operations into private hands to help the city overcome a critical budget shortfall. Leppert intends to have the City Council discuss an agreement with the [Dallas Zoological Society] no later than mid-August, and he hopes to see it approved shortly thereafter.

Handing the zoo over to the society could save the city several million dollars off the $12.3 million proposed for zoo operations in the coming fiscal year, Leppert said. [...]

The society's board has yet to sign off on an agreement but became interested in taking over the zoo when it became clear that the city's budget troubles would lead to major cuts that could have a long-term impact. [...]

Meadows also hopes that private donations to the zoo will increase if the society takes over. Other zoos, including Houston's, are run under similar agreements and have had better success raising funds because of it. "There is a perception when something is run by a public entity, that they don't have a need for private donations. We've found that donors prefer to give to privately funded institutions," he said. [...]

The agreement would turn over all management and operations as well as the zoo animals to the society. The society would not pay the city anything. The city would retain ownership of the zoo's land and physical exhibits, of which there are about 190. Leppert said the agreement will require that the zoo be operated at or above current standards or be returned to the city. The society, meanwhile, is already familiar with many zoo operations, and its staff runs zoo marketing, concessions and the gift shop. The society has also funded several exhibits. [...]

Taxpayer subsidy will always be a piece of its budget, and that subsidy could grow in the short-term before leveling off, [Leppert] said. The zoo is also expected to benefit from future bond programs.

But now there is a better way to operate it, Leppert said, and Dallas should move in that direction. "What we're trying to look at is what is this asset and what's the best way to manage it," he said.

Hat tip to Robert Wilonsky at the Dallas Observer blog, who also points to a handy link to a memo from Dallas parks and recreation director Paul Dyer to Mayor Leppert and the City Council that includes a Powerpoint briefing on the proposed contract. As the briefing indicates, the proposed contract would also cover management services for the aquarium at Fair Park.

Having been a frequent visitor to the Houston Zoo for several years right after its transition to private hands, I can attest that its privatization arrangement certainly improved fundraising and capital investment and maintenance in both the asset and the surrounding park, generating a quite an improvement from its previous days as a public sector enterprise.

With the ongoing budget challenges that municipalities are facing these days, I suspect that we'll see growing interest in getting cities out of the zoo business. There's really nothing inherently governmental about running a zoo—Disney runs its Animal Kingdom and private interests own and/or operate zoos and wildlife parks of many shapes and sizes all throughout the country. Privatization is one policy option local leaders can turn to to ensure that zoos survive, and even thrive, during the current fiscal crunch.

» Reason Foundation's Privatization Research and Commentary


Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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