The Toledo Zoo is among northwest Ohio's signature public institutions: educational resource, entertainment venue, major employer, engine of regional economic development, cultural jewel. The zoo's new executive director, Jeff Sailer, faces the challenge of building on the valuable contributions of his predecessor, Anne Baker, who is retiring Aug. 1 after six years on the job.
The zoo is, of course, a joyous place for as many as a million young people and adults who visit it each year. They see and learn about a wide array of animals, from polar bears to elephants to penguins. But it's much more than that: For example, last week's announcement that the "Music Under the Stars" series is resuming this summer reminded Toledoans that the zoo's amphitheater is among the area's premier concert sites.
More broadly, a study by Bowling Green State University concluded that every dollar spent at the zoo generates as much as six dollars in regional economic activity -- an estimated $38 million in 2010. Even local residents who don't visit the zoo have an interest in keeping it financially strong.
Mr. Sailer's executive experience with New York's Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates three zoos in that city, and with Zoo Miami appears to qualify him well for the top job in Toledo. His scientific credentials also are solid.
The new director will need to exercise every ounce of his talent to help the zoo maintain its top-tier reputation. The recession, reflected in a shrunken local tax base as well as reduced revenues from paid attendance and concessions, has battered the zoo's finances. The zoo's operating expenses have increased despite strenuous cost-cutting efforts.
Mr. Sailer will preside over completion of a $25 million renovation of the zoo's aquarium that Ms. Baker launched. He also will do well to display Ms. Baker's flair for innovation, reflected in such exhibits as the expanded elephant trail that opened last month and the child-oriented "Nature's Neighborhood."
At the same time, Mr. Sailer must look for ways to broaden the zoo's funding base to affirm its status as a vital regional asset. Lucas County voters have faithfully supported the zoo by approving its levy requests, most recently last November.
But the Wood County Board of Commissioners, in an act of shortsighted parochialism, refused last year to place a proposal on the ballot that would have allowed that county's voters to decide whether they wanted to support the zoo with a modest amount of their property tax dollars -- even though the county benefits economically from the zoo's presence. Zoo officials will have to join the effort to develop more enlightened local political leadership.
Ms. Baker annoyed some critics by presenting zoo exhibits that addressed conservation issues and the effects of man-made climate change, and by emphasizing renewable energy in zoo operations.
But the director asserted plausibly that educating patrons about threats to animals' habitat -- and survival -- is an essential element of the zoo's educational mission. It will remain so.
The zoo is one of Toledo's most beloved places. But love alone doesn't pay the bills. Just as the zoo supports the entire region, its new executive director and his board must make the case for more-equitable regional support of the zoo.