Thursday, August 20, 2009

Culture for Sale

How do you close a public zoo? Put 900-plus wild animals up for sale on Craig's List?

That's about the level of thinking our local county commissioners would indulge. The refusal of county and city governments to financially assist the Northwest Florida Zoo will stain the area's reputation for decades to come.

It's not merely a question of no more "smiles" on "childrens faces." Nor is it only the disappearance of the $1.4 million annual Zoo payroll; or the loss of gate receipts and tourist sales that average $1.5 million a year; or the deliberate decision of county commissioners to kick away an estimated $7 million a year in additional income attracted to the community by The Zoo, as a Haas Center economic study has calculated.

What hurts most is the loss of a much-beloved, unique, and irreplaceable cultural and educational resource. Face it. This is an area of the nation where civic culture and public education are in an execrable condition. We can ill afford to lose any of the slim pickin's we have.

Closure of the Zoo exposes local governments throughout the Florida Panhandle as feeble and purblind, at best. As Bobby Switzer, a prominent member of The Zoo's nonprofit governing body, pointed out this morning in an interview on public radio station WUWF-FM, "great cities have great zoos."

Zoos are as essential to the vibrancy of cultural and educational life of a community as public libraries, museums, theaters, and community halls or civic centers. Indeed, like each of those other common cultural institutions, zoos are more than mere public entertainment; they are a bridge that connects the public with lifelong learning opportunities to stay in touch with the world around us.

That's not for the likes of newspaper columnist Mark O'Brien, of course. He wants to see The Zoo "unplugged" because it can't operate without "constant financial worries."

Well, of course not! Neither can any other public cultural or educational institution survive anywhere, not without public funding. Not schools, not libraries, not museums. Not even the much-ballyhooed "Maritime Park" whose actual costs, you can be sure, will far exceed the promised $70 million. Even the recently-renovated Saenger Theater, which after spending $15 million turns out to need additional "repairs" that could escalate to a quarter of a million dollars more than planned, has financial difficulties.

Even the "museum" planned for the Maritime Baseball Park had 'constant financial worries' that local government was about to throw it overboard, too, until -- irony of ironies -- $13 million in federal stimulus money showed up, as we learn from the same newspaper page today that announces the Zoo's closing. (No thank you, Congressman Jeff Miller, who voted against it.)

Personally, we support public financing for the Maritime Park and Saenger Theater, just as we do expenditures for public libraries, museums, public schools, and all the rest. They enrich a community. They serve everyone regardless of wealth and status. They can be a vibrant attraction for families and businesses wanting to relocate -- or to stay put instead of moving away.

Such cultural institutions are a large part of what makes a true community instead of a mere place with houses. If Mark O'Brien had his way, none of them would exist unless they turned a profit for private shareholders.

Nearly 100% of all zoos in the nation are financed by local governments. Truly superior zoos are maintained and financed by forward-thinking communities of Pensacola's size all across the country.

But there is none in the Florida Panhandle. We have been exceptionally lucky over the years to have had one of the only privately-financed zoos in the nation. Once the Northwest Florida Zoo is gone, there will be none.

It's not like the money isn't there. Santa Rosa County's Tourist Development Council reportedly has "about $667,000 in reserves." Not long ago, that same county gave commissioner Gordon Goodin's business partner $3.1 million for yet another "industrial park" in Milton, which can't even fill the industrial park it has. A bigger waste of money is hard to imagine.

In Escambia County, about $7 million a year is earmarked for "tourist development," much of it -- just as with the SRIA's "tourist promotion" budget for Pensacola Beach -- shoveled into the outstretched palms of politically-connected local advertising agencies for services of dubious value. Yet, it's also worth noting, local hotels have combined to send a message to county commissioners speaking out in favor of using the county tourism "bed tax" to support The Zoo.

Knowledgeable Zoo insiders tell us the decision of Santa Rosa and Escambia county commissioners to refuse the modest support needed to keep the Zoo open, at least until a sustaining MTSU referendum can appear on the ballot, would be more livable if commissioners were honest about their reasons. Instead, we're told, some of them are flat-out lying when they tell the press The Zoo hasn't given them financials or a long-term plan.

"We've given every commissioner a package of extensive, detailed materials every year for the past three years," one source told us. "Included were detailed financial reports and a very specific 5-year statement of goals and the steps we were taking to achieve them. If Gordon Goodin and Lane Lynchard claim they don't have enough information, it can only be because they haven't read the information we've given them."

It might be, too, that some of those same commissioners secretly covet the 65 acres of prime real estate The Zoo now occupies. Once the lions and tigers are sold off, the only predators left will be our local politicians and their developer buddies.


Anonymous said...

Sad but true. No leaders here.

Anonymous said...

Predators that's a good one. Gordon Goodin should be put in a cage.