Orana Trust ready to quit Nelson zoo

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 12:00 29/06/2013

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Orana Wildlife Trust is negotiating the sale and transfer of assets at Nelson's Natureland mini-zoo to prospective new owners, trust chief executive Lynn Anderson says.

The Nelson City Council has asked its chief executive, Clare Hadley, to enter into negotiations with prospective buyers on a lease and funding agreement scheduled to be in place by September 30.

The wildlife trust owns the zoo and its animals, and the council owns the land, which it currently leases to the trust.

Ms Anderson said Orana owned the assets and improvements at Natureland, and the process under way now was simply an administration formality like any property handover.

"We need to sell it to the new owners, and we'd like to be out by September 30.

"I feel really good about it, and I believe the potential new owners have the right skills and expertise, but Orana is happy to continue with any assistance we can give, because we want Natureland to succeed."

The exit of the Christchurch-based trust is the result of financial strain in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes, and the end of its plans to expand Natureland into a bigger area.

The council called for expressions of interest last year, when Orana announced it was pulling out. It shortlisted two options from three submitted but declined both.

Nelson Mayor Aldo Miccio said the opportunity had emerged as a late application to the council.

"We've heard from the people who are keen to take over Natureland from Orana Wildlife Trust, and around the council table there was enthusiasm for their suggestions."

Orana came to Natureland's rescue in 2008, after the council sparked public outrage when it announced that it planned to close the ailing zoo.

The decision was made after former Natureland operator the Abel Tasman Gateway Trust said it was struggling financially and could not continue to run the zoo on the council-owned reserve.

The council agreed to provide the Orana trust with the Natureland site in Tahunanui for 20 years, for an annual rental of $10. Nelson ratepayers contributed $200,000 in the first year, $175,000 in the second year, $150,000 in the third year, and no less than that in following years. The council also set aside $160,000 in the first year for essential renewals and improvements.

Orana developed several new exhibit areas, introduced new animals, and developed a Ministry of Education curriculum support project education programme. Ms Anderson said Orana would continue to run the Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom (LEOTC) contract at Natureland.

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The council has earmarked a $200,000 operational grant for Natureland in its 2013-14 annual plan, and decided that up to $200,000 a year could be available for the term of the lease, subject to approval in future annual plans and the Long Term Plan 2015-25.

A development plan is needed to modernise and improve Natureland, so the council has also made provision for up to $200,000 for capital improvements over the next five years, which is also subject to approval through future budgeting plans.

"There's still some work to do, and that includes the new operators reaching agreement with the Orana Wildlife Trust," Mr Miccio said. "If that falls into place as we hope it will, council is ready to offer the support that will hopefully see this much-loved community facility grow and thrive."

Councillors highlighted the fact that it was the third time the operation of Natureland had reached crisis point, and that "much better community support" was essential if it was to stay open.

Ms Anderson said Orana would always be a friend to Natureland but would now "stick to its knitting" and focus on its Christchurch wildlife park, which had two major capital developments under way.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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