Despite a messy breakup earlier this year between Dane County and the nonprofit that ran Vilas Zoo’s concessions and fundraising, the zoo’s operations “hardly missed a beat” this season, zoo director Ronda Schwetz said Thursday.

“Nine out of 10 visitors have no idea that there is any difference in the operating structure,” Schwetz said.

The county ended its long-running partnership with the Henry Vilas Zoological Society in March after friction between the society and Schwetz and conflict over how much money the society had in cash reserves. The nonprofit had run the zoo’s concessions, carousel, train ride, gift shop, special events and fundraising.

County officials had also feared the zoo might lose its accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — which allows the zoo to house endangered animals such as polar bears, red pandas and orangutans — because the society did not want to be under the zoo director’s authority.

In April, the Dane County Board approved a three-year contract with Centerplate, a for-profit company, to run the zoo concessions and rides.

During an update given to the County Board Thursday in the zoo’s Glacier Grille, Schwetz told board members that the transition from the society to Centerplate has been “seamless.”

She said the rides and concessions never stopped running and the zoo was able to rehire nearly all of the employees that ran those parts of the zoo.

Schwetz said she is confident that the zoo will be able to keep its AZA accreditation. She said the zoo’s inspection in July went “incredibly well,” and she believes they have met all of the requirements needed for the accreditation.

During the transition, Schwetz said, she has seen an overwhelming amount of support for the zoo from County Board members and area residents.

In particular, donations at the zoo were up “dramatically” this year, Schwetz said. From April 1 to June 30, drop boxes at the zoo had collected $130,000, Schwetz said. In 2018, $40,000 was collected.

The zoo’s total revenue from April through June was $584,000, with $228,000 of that coming from concessions.

The zoo also has made strides in several other important areas, Schwetz said, including launching a new website, adding new bathrooms and opening a walk-up window for Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream and having increased access to veterinarians from UW-Madison’s School Of Veterinary Medicine.

Schwetz said the zoo is working to bolster its sustainability efforts by using biodegradable food containers and some solar panels. The zoo is also working to raise more money through a new membership program called the “Conservation Club,” where 100% of the proceeds will go toward conservation efforts.

Conflict at Vilas Zoo over money, operations

A long-running partnership between Dane County and the Henry Vilas Zoological Society is ending over disputes over the nonprofit organization’s cash reserves and friction with the zoo director. 

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The County Boardvoted 27-8 to approve a three-year contract with Centerplate to run concessions and rides after several board members brought up questions relating to the shift from a nonprofit to a for-profit company operating concessions without a bidding process, as well as transparency and board oversight of contract negotiations.

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

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