The ongoing budget problems associated with the Jackson Zoo came to a head this month with the city of Jackson taking over the zoo from the Jackson Zoological Society, which had run the zoo for 35 years. Things had gotten so bad, the society had failed to pay its city water bill, running up an unpaid balance of $6 million.
Unfortunately, Mississippi’s capital city is not in a financial position to take on new problems, evidenced by its desire to treat 20 zoo workers as independent contractors rather than full-time employees until a contract is approved with ZoOceanarium Group to run the zoo. Not only is this strategy probably in violation of employment laws, it’s unfair to the zoo employees, many of whom have worked there for decades.
Zoos have always relied on government subsidies. Many of the buildings at the Jackson Zoo were first erected under the Works Progress Administration program during the Great Depression. The Jackson Zoo has always relied on a combination of city, state and federal funds to supplement admission tickets and charitable contributions.
When Jackson was booming, it could be the major funder of the zoo. But times have changed. Suburban flight has eroded the tax base of Jackson, while Rankin and Madison counties have boomed. The Jackson Zoo needs a new location and a new funding mechanism, either through the state or a tri-county agreement.
It’s hard to walk away from a lost investment, but the current zoo location will never do. It’s in a rough neighborhood that discourages visitors.
Lefleur’s Bluff State Park has been proposed as a suitable new site. The location is well-situated geographically, being at the intersection of I-55 and Mississippi 25, both busy six-lane traffic arteries. The zoo could be promoted in conjunction with two other nearby attractions, the Mississippi Children’s Museum and the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, as well as the beautiful walking trails at the park. The zoo could take the place of the park’s nine-hole golf course, which is rarely used because it is so poorly maintained.
Jackson cannot afford to run the zoo. Ultimately, the option will be to close it or to relocate it with a new source of state and/or regional funding. The situation begs for a leader to take the initiative to make this happen.
Surely among the mayors, supervisors, City Council members, legislators, state elected officials and state agency heads in and around Jackson, there must be someone willing to step up.