Partnership plan still undecided for Niabi Zoo

COAL VALLEY, Illinois - A plan that changes how Niabi Zoo operates may have been shot down after a legal ruling. The zoo has been trying to find ways to be more successful by improving its operations and the way it raises money.

People in Rock Island County see Niabi Zoo as a great asset to the community but they also think it could be better run. Some say less government is the answer but the plan presented on Monday November 14, 2016 is getting a cold reception.

“If there is no interest in pursuing this down the road then we are wasting our time,” says Oversight Committee Member, Terry Brahm.

The special Rock Island County Committee is supposed to develop a new management structure at the zoo.

“The most important thing is we do it right. It’s not important that we do it tomorrow. It’s important we do it right,” says Zoo Director, Lee Jackson.

One plan would allow a greater private partnership with the zoo that's run by the county's Forest Preserve.  The zoo could then become private and be run by a third party. That idea is running into a legal roadblock as the county attorney now says that plan has too many risks.

“I think there is some frustration that opinion came late in the day. I’m frustrated but it happened and now we are going to act on it,” says Jackson.

It all comes down to dollars and cents. With Rock Island County facing money problems, the zoo depends more than ever on it's fundraising organization; The Zoological Society.

“We can't live without the tax support we get from this being public owned property but we can't run the zoo without private donations also,” added Brahm.

The new zoo director says that's one reason why he doesn't want the county to rush into any decisions.

“I think it will be easier to raise funds and do more things at the zoo but not doing it right now won't damage the zoo or lessen the experience for our guests,” says Jackson.

In his letter to the committee, Rock Island County State`s Attorney John Mcgehee says there is no state statute stopping the zoo from entering into a public-private partnership. The committee plans to meet again in early December.

It's been a year since the county began considering changes in Niabi Zoo operations. Part of those changes was to hire a new zoo director. Zoo Director, Lee Jackson says he plans to hire a new assistant next month.