Private caretakers help aging zoo turn around
Thompson Park in Watertown, N.Y., is located between Lake Ontario and the Adirondack mountains. Despite the park’s beauty, however, the Thompson Park Zoo was considered one of the worst in recent years. Originally constructed in a 15-acre enclave of the park, the zoo was, until its recent renovation, a financial burden to the city. During the late ’80s, municipal officials recognized the need to improve access to the park. Consequently, a partnership between the city and the Thompson Park conservancy group, a private, non-profit group incorporated by the leaders of the citizens, campaign, was created, and repair work began on some of the infrastructure within the park.
Phase one of the zoo renovation, completed in 1993, included construction of handicapped-accessible walkways, service ways and plumbing and trunk electrical, as well as a core of natural habitat exhibits. The minimal services provided by the old zoo were turned over in their entirety to the conservancy, and the city helped ensure the success of privatization by providing equipment, materials and personnel. Park employees were retained at their previous titles and pay scales by the city as park maintenance workers, and they continued to work out of their own facility within the zoo’s perimeter fence.
Still, despite the public-private partnership, the conservancy had to generate continuous funding in order to survive in a climate of reduced public expenditures and private donations. It relied on unrestricted monetary allocations from a statewide parks enhancement fund, and restricted monetary allocations designated for marketing campaigns to stimulate the local tourist trade, including a “Bed Tax” (from hotels and motels) received from the town of Watertown; and user fees.
The conservancy took responsibility for no-fee park amenities in order to make user fees palatable. The change from public to private is slow, and proceeding cautiously allowed the organization to develop funding, volunteer bases and real operating budget.