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Private foundation may run the state zoo

Posted April 18, 2012 11:28 a.m. EDT
Updated April 19, 2012 12:05 p.m. EDT

— The N.C. Zoo Society, a private nonprofit corporation, would take over operation of the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro from the state if legislation lawmakers reviewed Wednesday morning passes.

While the state would retain title to the zoo property and continue a $10 million annual contribution toward its operation, the society would hire the zoo's staff, set admission rates and forge other business partnerships.

"By becoming more flexible and entrepreneurial, we can attract more partners," said David Jones, the zoo's director.

Currently, the zoo is a division of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. As such, it is subject to state regulations on contracting and competing with businesses in the private sector.

The new public-private arrangement, Jones said, would facilitate future plans for the zoo, such as building a hotel and attractions somewhere on the 2,100 acres owned by the state and the society currently.

The House Select Committee on Public-Private Partnerships is scheduled to endorse the draft legislation next week. The bill would then be considered by the General Assembly during the legislative session that begins May 8.

Changes to how the zoo operates have been discussed for years and most committee members seemed comfortable with the premise of putting zoo operations in private hands. But there were still some concerns. 

Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat, asked whether the zoo would still admit North Carolina school groups free of charge. That would be part of the management agreement, Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican said. Carney asked that specific language be added to the draft bill to ensure that was the case.

"Anything that we can put into this bill that eases the mind of the public ... I think we need to put the language in there," she said.

Jones said that the new operational arrangement could help the zoo push forward with the new Asia exhibit area, which will join the existing North America and Africa sections.

As well, he said, the new model would help the zoo tackle needed repairs and renovations. Private funds set aside to upgrade the polar bear exhibit have been tied up due to state regulations, he said.

Current employees of the zoo would be laid off by the state and immediately hired by the zoo society, under the bill. That transition would happen on or before Jan. 1, 2013, under the bill's draft language, although zoo officials said they may need until June 30, 2013. 

The bill would also require the society to agree to put two state officials on its board, and become subject to audits by the Office of the Statue Auditor and the legislature's Program Evaluation Division.