Dane County and Henry Vilas Zoological Society discuss changes to partnership

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- Representatives of Dane County and the Henry Vilas Zoological Society (HVZS) met for nearly seven hours during the week of March 18 to discuss changes to their partnership.

This comes after the HVZS decided not to sign a proposed contract with the county on March 15. That contract was intended to replace the HVZS' current five-year contract, which is set to expire March 31.

Dane County has contracted with the HVZS to provide direct financial support, operate concessions and attractions like the carousel and train, to coordinate volunteers and to assist with educational programming, according to HVZS. The HVZS said the county's new proposal would make the organization "less effective," and would "significantly diminish the ability of the parties to continue under a highly successful public-private partnership."

On Friday, the HVZS announced in a press release that the organization sent its own proposal to Dane County.

In the proposal, the HVZS said it has been at an impasse with the county, but it is hopeful to "reach a solution that preserves and enhances our beloved Henry Vilas Zoo."

The organization asked Dane County to consider the following proposal:

  • Dane County will focus on its strengths that include animal welfare, facilities, education, and conservation.

  • The County will take over from the Society on ground operations which include concessions, gift shop, and on-ground attractions.

  • The Society has a long history of successfully raising funds for the zoo. The Society will continue to serve as the exclusive fundraising entity for the Henry Vilas Zoo. This includes memberships, marketing, and events.

  • Both parties acknowledge the need for more transparency and better communication.

The HVZS recommended using an independent mediator to finalize a contract.

"They want to take over the on grounds operations and that is important to them although that does impact a lot of people in the society we recognize that desire and respect it," said the society's vice chairman. Amy Supple, said.

The society said the zoo is stronger when it works together with Dane County. If a contract is successful, the HVZS said it will "ensure that the Henry Vilas Zoo maintains the highest standards in animal welfare, an exceptional guest experience, and the financial stability it needs to thrive for the next 100 years."

In the meantime, Dane County made two announcements on Friday concerning partnerships and employment at the zoo.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said in a statement that the county selected a firm to coordinate the zoo's concessions and attractions.

Centerplate, known for its work at the Alliant Energy Center, reached an agreement to coordinate operations at the county-owned Glacier Grille restaurant at the zoo, along with the carousel, train and gift shop. County employees filling those roles between now and the time the Centerplate contract is approved will be considered for employment with Centerplate, according to the press release.

Parisi also said the partnership with the Alliant Energy Center would create new employment opportunities during the winter months.

A resolution awarding the contract is before the County Board of Supervisors and will be reviewed in the coming weeks, according to Parisi.

Dane County also announced Friday that it will be extending job offers to all on-grounds society employees.

The Deputy Dane County Henry Vilas Zoo Director, Joseph Darcangelo, announced in a press release that Dane County staff would be visiting facilities at the Henry Vilas Zoo Friday to offer employment forms to those who work at the Glacier Grille, gift shop, and the carousel. The positions would start on the county's payroll on April 1.

"Offering opportunities to them it shows we are paying attention to their needs and their wants and that we are real and we do have feelings we want them to know we care about their livelihood," Darcangelo said.

Dane County said they will also offer full-time employment to staff from the HVZS who helped with zoo education and conservation programs, pending County Board action on Resolution 607. This resolution allows the zoo to "hire a total of nine new full-time positions, the staff necessary to ensure the zoo retains its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums."

"These individuals have been great partners of the zoo," Darcangelo said. "For those who want to continue being a part of this zoo experience, we want to make sure they know we are very much interested in their ongoing service to our zoo and community."

Parisi said the county and society representatives who met this week discussed the "transition regarding the coordination of the on-grounds attractions." The county also expressed its intent to continue dialogue about a longer term partnership, according to Parisi.

The county said the structure of that partnership will be informed by an independent consultant.

The consultant "will advise the zoo on national best practices for the most effective partnerships between zoos and groups that support them," Parisi said.

Parisi said the consultant's recommendations will also influence the county's plan to seek proposals from potential fundraising partners in the summer of 2019.