Anyone who saw the movie “We Bought a Zoo” knows what a colossal undertaking it is to run what amounts to a village of different species of animals. Over the last few years, as the city of Los Angeles has struggled to operate on a shrinking budget and identify its core services and hand off others, there’s been talk of getting out of the zoo-keeping business.
That doesn’t mean selling the Los Angeles Zoo. In fact, the city can’t. The animals and the zoo grounds are the property of the city and its residents.
But it does mean contracting with a private entity to run the zoo. The city tried last year to negotiate a management contract with the zoo’s nonprofit, highly focused and very successful fundraising arm, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., or GLAZA. Those talks fell apart, not over animals but people, particularly the unionized city employees who work at the zoo.
Hopefully, those negotiations will restart at some point. Meanwhile, GLAZA has drawn up a plan to run just one aspect of the zoo: marketing and event site rentals. Sounds small, but it’s not. A robust marketing campaign could draw in more visitors and generate more revenue to maintain a thriving animal habitat. The city’s general fund annual subsidy of the zoo, a robust $10 million six years back, will trickle in at $263,000 this coming fiscal year.
GLAZA officials promise to jump-start the marketing effort with an infusion of $2.65 million of privately raised funds in an effort to give the zoo more visibility in the Los Angeles area. (Just think about how many ads you see and hear on TV and radio — in Los Angeles — for the San Diego Zoo.)
GLAZA has drawn up a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, that would run for three years. GLAZA does propose to raise ticket prices $1 in each of those years, but the City Council would have to sign off on that each year. Currently, an adult ticket to the zoo is $17, a ticket for a child ages 2 to 12 is $12 and a family membership that gets you in without charge for a year is $114. (By comparison, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art charges adults $15 and lets in anyone under 18 for free. A family membership that allows free admission for a year is $90.)
GLAZA’s proposal comes before the City Council on Friday — its very busy last day before one of the most substantial turnovers in city government in years. As of Monday, we will have a new mayor, a new city attorney and six new City Council members.
All the more reason to approve GLAZA’s proposal. Yes, it hasn't done a business plan, but it will file one by November — and if the council doesn’t approve it, the memorandum of understanding is canceled immediately.
On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to get this marketing program going right now. The zoo could benefit from the increase in visibility, especially as summer sets in and kids are out of school, and the city wants to get out of the animal-keeping business. So at least turn over the marketing of the animals to GLAZA.
I don’t see any downside to this (although I’m sure someone will write and tell me one). And neither should the council. Don’t put this plan on hold while a new City Council gets up to speed on the zoo, which I’m guessing ranks as about 85th on its list of things to do. OMG, council members, approve the MOU.