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Update on Dallas Zoo Privatization

Leonard Gilroy
January 5, 2010, 12:12pm

David Flick at the Dallas Morning News checks in on the recent privatization of the Dallas Zoo, now three months into implementation:
Dallas City Council voted last summer to turn over management of the municipal zoo to the private Dallas Zoological Society, and the new year promises to bring a spurt of new attractions, more animals and the opening of the zoo's most ambitious exhibit in a generation.

"I think we're finally at a point where we can say this is where we want to be," said Gregg Hudson, executive director of the Dallas Zoo. "I don't want to set expectations too high, but this really could be the watershed year for us." [...]

The decision last year to privatize the Dallas Zoo is likely to have a profound effect on the institution, but perhaps in less obvious ways.

Michael Meadows, president of the Dallas Zoological Society, said the most profound difference will be a change in culture making it more entrepreneurial and more responsive. "When it was a city operation, it was difficult to make changes in staff; it was a kind of a tenured-faculty situation," he said. "Now that it's privately managed and, say, there's someone at the front gate that's taking tickets and not greeting people with a smile, we can say, 'This might not be the best job for you.' "

During the privatization discussions last summer, Meadows argued that it would be easier to raise money for a privately run zoo. Early in December, the point seemed proved when the zoological society announced that four donors had pledged $2.25 million since privatization began Oct. 1. [...]

Nationally, zoos that have privatized have generally done well, said Terry Maple, director of the Palm Beach Zoo in Florida.

"The track record is pretty good," he said. "Even privatized zoos that are struggling because of the economy are probably better off. Things are even tighter on local governments." [...]

Privatization of management will distance the zoo from local politics, he said, and because the city of Dallas has retained ownership of the facility, it will be able to ask voters for bond money to finance high-profile projects. He advised Dallas Zoo officials to think of themselves as competing with theme parks. The entrance has to be inviting, and the grounds need to be clean and exciting, he said. [...]

At the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, which is considered a model of successful privatization, deputy director Bruce Bohmke cautions Dallas officials and the public to be patient. "Switching over takes time. Even after seven years, we have employees who think they are still working for the city," he said. "And as late as five years out, we discovered that we were still operating two separate switchboards."

By privatizing, Dallas is joining a nationwide trend, Maple said. "Everything in the zoo business has changed, and Dallas is making itself part of this revolution," he said. "I think they'll be very successful."
More thoughts on the Dallas Zoo privatization here and here.

Reason Foundation's Annual Privatization Report 2009
Reason Foundation's Privatization Research and Commentary


Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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