Residents weigh in on zoo private management proposal

South Bend residents got a chance Thursday night to weigh in on a proposal to let a local not-for-profit take over management of the Potawatomi Zoo.

The common council PARC committee held a meeting so they and residents could ask questions about the idea.

The Potawatomi Zoological Society wants to handle day-to-day operations, while the city would still own the zoo and all of its assets.

The switch to a public-private partnership is spreading across the country – Indianapolis and Ft. Wayne zoos have such management structures in place.

The society says the change in management will make it easier for the zoo to maintain its Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation. If the zoo lost its accreditation, former Society President George Horn says they could lose up to 80 percent of their animals.

Horn says the AZA has expressed some concern over the zoo’s leadership and financial sustainability.

“The fact that this zoo is so dependent on city dollars and tax payer dollars and the ability to sustain that from year to year, which of course ebbs and flows with the economy -- they would like to see a model that's more sustainable,” Horn said.

The Zoological Society says it’s confident it will be able to raise the funds necessary to run the zoo. In fact, Horn says it may be easier through the public-private partnership.

“They know their dollars will stay with the zoo instead of into city coffers,” he said “And, people get a tax deduction when they donate to us.”

In addition to updating current exhibits, Horn says the society has ideas for new features at the Potawatomi Zoo that could raise funds themselves.

There’s talk of adding a giraffe-feeding exhibit and even a carousel, which visitors would have to pay extra to take advantage of.

Several residents expressed their support of the idea, including a zookeeper.

“Is it hard for me to stop thinking about am I going to lose money? Yeah it's hard to think about that stuff, but it sounds like we can reach an agreement that can help us as union members but also benefit the community and the animals,” said Jami Richard.

The union also supports the change, but only on one condition.

“We at the local are guardedly in favor of this proposal if the wage and benefit package of the employees that they currently enjoy can at least be sustained and not lessened through the concept,” said Jim Szucs with Teamsters Local 346.

Several council members also expressed concern over how the change in management could impact current zoo employees.

Questions were raised about what would happen to their Public Employee Retirement Funds, which several zoo workers have contributed thousands of dollars to over the years.

The Zoological Society says it doesn’t anticipate any cuts and expects to hire more workers if they take over management.

“We are committed to ensure that employees who come over and become a part of this public-private model will not lose any benefits, will not lose salary, will not lose their PERF benefits,” Horn said.

One person did speak against the proposal Thursday night, saying it’s not the best thing for the zoo.

“I came in when the first accreditation came into place and they said, ‘Hey, we're going to lose the zoo. We need 1.4 million,’” said Zoo Maintenance Superintendent Thomas Landgrebe. “Unfortunately, here we are again. As Chicken Little would say, the sky's falling.”

Landgrebe says he thinks the public-private partnership could add to bureaucracy issues.

The idea is only a proposal at this point. While Horn asked the common council for a resolution stating their support of the idea, members say they need more information first.

Allowing the society to take over day-to-day operations could save South Bend up to $5 million over ten years, Horn said.

The final decision on the future of the zoo is up to the Park Board and Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

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