Memphis Zoo opened its Zambezi River Hippo Camp a few days ago, and we were reminded once again of the incredible transformation that the Memphis Zoological Society has led in turning a pleasant, well-loved local zoo into an important regional zoo with national aspirations.

The zoo’s evolution over the past two decades came from its stated focus on planning, smart design decisions, and customer experience.  That’s what makes the abandonment of all of the same priorities when it came to parking simply incredulous.

It’s not possible to visit the Zambezi River Hippo Camp, or the zoo at large, without coming face-to-face with the dramatic dichotomy that exists between what was done by the zoo inside and outside the facility.  To imagine that all of the improvements to the zoo were proposed and approved, money raised to pay for them, and the complex constructions completed without anyone discussing a long-range parking solution simply defies credulity.

The people on the Zoo board are some of Memphis’ leading and most successful citizens.  Within their companies, it’s hard to imagine that if their staff had failed to raise a question so fundamental to their missions, they would still be employed.  That’s why it’s so hard for most people to imagine that as more and more exhibits drawing more and more people were being discussed, parking was simply ignored.

Changing Times

Perhaps, board members simply assumed that the most popular heart of the park – the greensward – would always be a parking lot, but even accounting for changing attitudes toward parkland and the growing evidence of its importance in the economic success of cities, it’s unthinkable that no one at the zoo was imagining – or talking with City Hall – about what could be done to get cars off parkland.

There were early warnings that failed to get attention, such as increased numbers of park users drawn by the burgeoning fitness and outdoor recreation movement, and by concerts, art exhibits, and special events, all of which were accelerated by improvements by the Overton Park Conservancy turning the park into an even more cherished and valued civic amenity.

Meanwhile, it’s an indictment of City Hall thinking that over more than 20 years of new, grand zoo plans, no one in the mayor’s office got serious about how the pressure for more parking would be handled.  It took new mayor, Jim Strickland, to set up a mediation process, which he reported last week is making progress toward a long-term resolution of these issues.

Hopefully, Memphis City Council can resist the impulse to inject itself again in an issue that requires diplomacy and open lines of communications rather than political haymakers aimed at giving the zoo the upper hand.

A Different Time And Place

Here’s the thing, the contract between City of Memphis, Memphis Park Commission, and Memphis Zoological Society was signed 27 years ago.  It was signed on behalf of city government by Mayor Dick Hackett.  In other words, it was signed for a different city and for a different time.  Unfortunately, the Park Commission was eliminated during the administration of Mayor Willie W. Herenton and parks were at that point relegated to just another service in a long list of city services and without the advocates that had created one of the best park systems in the country.

If the Park Commission had continued to exist, its track record would suggest that it would have identified parking as an issue requiring serious thought and decisions.  That said, it already  appears that the tone is changing with some members of the Council who are asking more questions about the contract with the zoo, respective responsibilities, and why zoo funding has climbed at a time when lack of funding resulted in declining condition of other public buildings such as community centers.

The zoo does appear to have gotten special attention in city budgets over the past decade.  Generally speaking, nonprofit organizations that have taken over management of city assets – think Riverfront Development Corporation, Memphis Botanic Garden Foundation, and Memphis Brooks Museum of Art Inc. – enter into contracts that guarantee city funding at the same level that existed when the agreement was signed.

As a result, the level of city funding for these management organizations remains roughly the same (although some have actually been reduced).  It is a curiosity of zoo funding that it is 62% higher today than it was 10 years ago.

It’s Not PR, It’s Policy

Even more curious is that the amount the zoo received each year exceeded the amount in the City Council-approved budget.  We’re not suggesting anything diabolical and assume there are logical explanations, but when it happens every year for a decade, it can’t be considered an anomaly.

Meanwhile, the zoo once again misreads the parking on parkland controversy, and because of it, it’s treating it as a public relations war rather than about a community reaching the wisest policy decision about the highest and best use of publicly-owned parkland.

Zoo officials appear to be confused about the 1988 Overton Park Master plan adopted by the Park Commission, which superseded the zoo’s 1986 master plan that receives so much reliance.  The 1988 plan stated that overflow parking would take place on Prentiss Place, not on the Greensward.  ­­­The confusion results in the idea propagated by the zoo that it is now being asked to give up some right, when the fact is that it never possessed it in the first place.

The following are the actual funding amounts over the past 10 years.  The total operating funding for the zoo totals $28 million and the capital improvement funding totals $7.5 million.

Operating Budgets

10-Year Total: $28,048,893

2017 – $3,552,637 (proposed)

2016 – $3,326,420 (forecast)

2015 – $3,762,484

2014 – $3,913,666

2013 – $2,690,639

2012 – $2,199,278

2011 – $2,337,305

2010 – $2,127,000

2009 – $1,943,536

2008 – $2,195,928


Capital Improvements Budget

10-Year Total: $7,500,000

2017 – $250,000

2016 – $250,000

2015 – $250,000

2014 – $250,000

2013 – $250,000

2012 – $250,000

2011 – $250,000

2010 – $2,750,000

2009 – $2,750,000

2008 – $250,000


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