Private management proposed for South Bend zoo

The Indiana Toll Road switched to a private operator. Now some feel that South Bend’s Potawatomi Zoo should do the same.

There’s a proposal on the table to hand zoo operations over to a private entity: That entity is a not for profit corporation based in our own backyard.

“The day to day operations of the zoo would be managed by the (Potawatomi) Zoological Society, which is a 501 C 3 non-profit, but the City of South Bend would still own the land, own the exhibits, they would own the animals and the buildings,” said Marcy Dean, Executive Director of the Potawatomi Zoological Society.

The society is the same private group that runs the train at the zoo, and recently raised $1 million for an otter exhibit.

“We’re not here to bust unions, we’re not here to bring down wages, we’re not here to, we’re not here for people to lose jobs, we’re not cutting positions to save money here,” said Marcy Dean.

The plan does call for zoo workers to switch from the city, to the Zoological Society payroll. “Our goal is to maintain accreditation and in the last two accreditations there have been some questions that have come up in terms of leadership, governance, and financial sustainability,” said Marcy Dean.

For instance, under city control, the zoo has operated without a permanent director for the past 18 months. “Is there a chance that we could still get accredited under the same model? With the dual leadership and the governance issues and, you know, the heavy on the you know, financial reliance on the city's general fund,
it’s possible, it’s possible.” But Dean doesn’t feel it’s worth the risk. “There’s over 70 percent of zoos and aquariums out there that are operating under this model (public/ private partnerships) now, they’ve seen great successes.”

The proposed privatization plan will be the subject of a South Bend Common Council committee meeting Thursday May 9th at 5:30 p.m.

“I’m glad we have a zoo here in the City of South Bend, I want to keep a zoo here in the City of South Bend and the zoo needs help,” said Councilman Oliver Davis, (D) 6th District.

However, Councilman Davis feels zoo employees should remain city employees in order to protect their pension and benefit status, and that a new zoo board of directors should be established that includes members appointed by the council and the mayor.

Over the last three years, the zoo has lost about $1 million per year. That’s why the city would be asked to continue contributing $1 million annually for operations even after the switch.

While the zoo’s animals come from all around the world, and many of its visitors come from well beyond the city limits, South Bend still goes it alone when it comes to owning and operating the zoo.

“You know, we are the city zoo, because we are here, and it is a gem for the city, but it's a gem for this whole region and so really, opening up opportunities to tap funding resources outside of South Bend would be huge,” said Dean.

The society feels it would have an easier time securing grants, public donations, or even contributions from other taxing units if it ran the zoo.

“When we go out and we fund raise sometimes we will hear, even though you’re a 501 C 3 non-profit the City of South Bend is still supporting you, and so, you know they’re footing the bill and they’re taking care of things: The stigma is there of being attached to the city organization still,” said Marcy Dean.

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