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ZooMontana is preparing for a visit from two representatives of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums this week.

Zoo Board President Ian McDonald said a veterinarian and a zoo director from opposite sides of the country will be in Billings on Thursday and Friday to look into issues that jeopardize the zoo's accreditation.

The accreditation came into question in February because of the zoo's financial problems. At the time, the zoo barely had enough cash to make it through the month or pay employee salaries.

Since the news, the community has given the zoo more than $500,000 in donations and pledges. The zoo does not have a running total of donations since meeting the $500,000 mark.

The outpouring of support was commended by the AZA, but was not enough to maintain its accreditation. The zoo still lacks a long-term business plan.

"We didn't see them as adversaries," McDonald said. "They had the standards for the accreditation the zoo needs to meet. The AZA is not the villain here. It's the fault of ZooMontana."


Zoo visit

The site visit will determine whether the accreditation will be revoked or if the issue will be tabled until  the AZA committee's conference in September.

The zoo board and Jackie Worstell, zoo director, received a letter from the AZA last week highlighting the concerns, including the zoo's immediate and long-term finances.

The correspondence was the first written response from the AZA since rejecting the zoo board's request for continued accreditation in March.

The letter also stated that the AZA wanted to look into the relationship between the zoo board and staff, the zoo's veterinarian contract and the zoo's medical program, the current staff and anticipated staff vacancies, deferred maintenance, and the effect of the zoo's financial issue and governance/management dysfunction on the zoo's programs and operations.

"It is what we expected and what they verbally told us," McDonald said. "There are steps being made toward long-term stability, and they want to make sure the board is not micromanaging. Our role is governance."

McDonald said the board has been working on getting the deed to the zoo's land changed in order to take advantage of investment opportunity.

The opportunity includes building a theater comparable to an IMAX on site. McDonald said that, as it stands, the land can only be used for a zoo or botanical garden.

McDonald said he has been working with the state Department of Transportation on changing the wording. Right now, he said they are trying to determine if doing so would require a legislative act.

"The investment is still in neutral until we hear from the Department of Transportation," McDonald said. "One person right now wants to see everything coordinated. It's his idea, and we think it could work in Billings."

If the proposal pans out, McDonald said, leasing the land for the property would provide about two-thirds of the $300,000 needed in cash reserves for the winter months.

"It wouldn't put us in for expansion," McDonald said. "It'd maintain status quo."

The zoo would have to do more to start updating the more than 20-year-old facility and bring in new exhibits. Paving the zoo's driveway would cost $275,000 alone, McDonald said.


Expanding board

McDonald said the board has appointed a new member and is working to appoint one more.

The newest member is Matthew Brahana, an attorney with Crowley Fleck in Billings. McDonald did not release the name of the second candidate, who is in the middle of the nomination process.

He did say the candidate is a woman with experience with radio media.

The two new nominations would put the board at 10 members, which McDonald said could change by next month as some current members reach their term limits.

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