TAMPA — Lowry Park Zoo's decision to build two animal-holding structures on private land owned by a corporation headed by zoo president Lex Salisbury has alarmed some city and county officials.
On Wednesday, they questioned: Were tax dollars used? And just how involved are zoo leaders in Salisbury's private venture?
It hasn't opened yet, but Salisbury is developing his 258-acre Polk County site as a game park called Safari Wild, in which guests will get up close with exotic animals.
Zoo spokeswoman Rachel Nelson said Safari Wild leased 10 acres of that land to the zoo for free to allow zoo animals to roam its pastures. On those 10 acres, the zoo built a horse barn and fencing and started constructing a holding area for birds and small primates.
But in June, the zoo's executive board dissolved the partnership because they didn't want to give the appearance of a conflict of interest, Nelson said.
"The zoo is a financially responsible nonprofit organization," she said. "And we cannot afford having anyone in the community doubting our integrity.''
The zoo will eventually have to take down the animal holding areas or Safari Wild would have to buy the structures from the zoo, she said.
The zoo's six-member executive committee reviewed all of the transactions between Safari Wild and the zoo but saw no improprieties, she said.
Executive board member Bob Merritt echoed that sentiment. "They were all approved at the appropriate level, at the chairman's level," he said.
The chairman of the zoo's executive board, Fassil Gabremariam, is also listed in state corporate records as one of three officers in a nonprofit arm of Safari Wild — Safari Wild Conservation Foundation. The other officers are Salisbury and St. Petersburg veterinarian Stephen L. Wehrmann.
"We're certainly aware of it," said Merritt, who has been asked by the executive board to oversee an independent audit of the transactions.
He doesn't know when the audit will finish, but once it is, he will report findings to the full zoo board, Merritt said.
Some in the 38-member zoo board didn't know about the zoo's use of Safari Wild property. Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda is one of them.
He said he hopes the full board will get a chance to review the transactions, which he thinks represent conflicts of interest.
"It's like me doing business with the city, owning a company. You don't do that," Miranda said.
Santiago Corrada, the city administrator of neighborhood services, is another zoo board member who didn't know about the zoo's structures on Salisbury's property.
He said he heard about a memorandum of understanding with Safari Wild that would allow zoo animals to roam its open spaces, and he voiced opposition.
"The city's position is that there should be no connection between Safari Wild and the zoo," he said. "No commingling between resources, be they financial, personnel or animals."
Safari Wild animals didn't use the zoo's acres, Nelson said. The land was only seen as an interim spot until the zoo finds its own land for husbandry and breeding programs. She said the barn and holding area are temporary and can be moved at any time.
And while she didn't disclose how much the zoo paid for the structures, Nelson said no public funds were used.
The zoo had a budget of $450,000 this year from the city and $2.27-million from the county.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman said he spoke to the county attorney Wednesday and wants detailed information about how county money is being spent at the zoo.
"I want to make specifically a point that the county money was spent in Hillsborough County," Norman said.
And City Council members John Dingfelder and Joseph Caetano said they would consider withholding next year's budget money slated for the zoo until the city knows how it will be spent.
"I think somebody's abusing their power," Caetano said.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita said she'd like to hear what Salisbury has to say.
On Wednesday, neither he nor Gabremariam could be reached for comment.
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.