Dane County moving to take over nonprofit’s role at Vilas Zoo

March 22, 2019

Dane County is moving forward Friday with taking over operations of concessions and attractions at Vilas Zoo following the breakdown in negotiations with the nonprofit organization that ran those functions.

The Henry Vilas Zoological Society, which has worked with the zoo since 1914 including through the zoo’s transition from city to county ownership, will have to leave the zoo’s grounds March 31 as its contract expires, leaving the concessions stands and gift shop without employees. The county has already selected an operator for those aspects, although the contract with that operator is pending County Board approval.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said the county has selected Centerplate to run the Glacier Grille restaurant, carousel, train and gift shop at the admissions-free zoo. Centerplate is the in-house caterer and concessions provider for the county-owned Alliant Energy Center.

The County Board will decide on two zoo-related resolutions in the coming month. One resolution would approve the contract with Centerplate, and the second would allow the county to hire nine full-time equivalent employees to work at the zoo.

The two resolutions will need to make their way through the County Board’s committees a secure a final vote from the board. Board Chairwoman Sharon Corrigan said those resolutions will go before the Public Works Committee March 26 and the Personnel and Finance Committee April 1 before going to the board April 11 for final approval.

To fill the gap between the society’s contract expiration and the start of Centerplate’s contract, the county also announced Friday that it will be offering jobs to society staff who work at the Glacier Grille, gift shop and carousel.

“These individuals have been great partners of the zoo,” said Joseph Darcangelo, the zoo’s deputy director. “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.”

Corrigan said these would be limited-term employees, which the zoo has the authority to hire without board approval.

The employees who accept the county’s offer would then be considered for employment with Centerplate.

The proposed contract with Centerplate would last three years, an each year, the county would pay Centerplate $50,000, according to the resolution going before the County Board. The county would keep all of the first $100,000 in profits each year, and Centerplate would keep 15 percent of any profits above that.

“If Centerplate’s performance is that of the current operator, gross revenues for all operations are about $2 million,” county controller Chuck Hicklin said.

In 2017, the society generated $2.07 million in gross revenue from those operations, according to the society’s tax documents.

The county plans to request proposals for a fundraising partner this spring, Parisi’s office said. A formal request will be put out after the county works with an independent consultant who has worked with the Association for Zoos and Aquariums, Hicklin said.

“The consultant would work with the county to help assess best practices in perms of relationships between comparable zoos and their respective support organizations,” Hicklin said.

The contract with that consultant has not been finalized, but Hicklin said the county will announce more details next week.

County and zoological society officials met this week to discuss the transition, according to a statement from the County Executive’s Office, and the county “relayed to the President of the Society its intent to continue dialogue about a longer term partnership.”

In a statement, the zoological society called on the county to continue to have it “serve as the exclusive fundraising entity,” including managing zoo memberships, marketing and events. The society has supported the zoo since 1914 and has worked in collaboration with the county since the zoo transitioned from city to county ownership in the 1980s.

The zoological society is suggesting a mediator be used to draft a new contract between the sides that would keep animal wellness and concessions under county control, fundraising efforts to the society and an acknowledgement of “more transparency and better communication.”

State Journal reporter Logan Wroge contributed to this report.