Md. Zoo president to step down

The Baltimore Sun

The president of the financially troubled Maryland Zoo in Baltimore announced yesterday that she will step down from her post in December to spend more time with her family.

Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb, 56, who has presided over the zoo since 2002, said she decided to quit so she could spend more time with her husband and their five children and four grandchildren. She said family considerations were the only reason she planned to leave the job.

In a brief interview yesterday, Grieb said she feels confident of the zoo's future - noting recent increases in state and city aid that have helped place the zoo on the path toward steadier financial footing. Late last year, zoo officials requested a $4 million increase in state aid, pointing to a looming $3 million budget deficit. The state has since pledged a $2 million increase for fiscal 2008; the city has increased its funding by $200,000 and Baltimore County by $50,000, according to zoo officials.

"I have no current plans to do anything other than relax and spend time with my family," Grieb said, adding, "I have loved every single second of this job. And today I was watching our vets do a procedure on one of our animals, and I found myself thinking, 'I'm nuts. Why would anyone want to leave this wonderful job?' So it's very difficult to do everything I want to do at once."

Under Grieb's leadership, the 131-year-old zoo has taken high-profile steps to cut operating costs. In March, the zoo canceled plans to add three African elephants to its collection. Zoo officials had hoped pachyderms would draw more visitors to the facility, which has been troubled by lagging attendance in recent years.

In another cost-cutting move, the zoo, for the past two years, has closed in January and February, helping it save on snow-removal and staffing costs during months when attendance is down. The zoo's annual operating budget is about $12 million.

"I was brought on to bring a bit more business discipline to the zoo, and we've all worked very hard on that," Grieb said. "The current situation is a whole lot better because I feel that we've really established a partnership with the city and the state, and we look forward to making great strides."

Grieb said her decision to leave in about six months gives the zoo "plenty of time" to search for a replacement and to make sure there is a "smooth transition."

Largely subsidized by the state, the zoo's budget has increased about 1 percent annually since 1993. While its funding has remained steady, the number of visitors has declined markedly. Last year, the zoo tallied about 332,000 visitors, compared with 537,000 in 1993. The standard adult admission is $15 - a price that zoo officials concede might affect attendance, but they said it is necessary to generate revenue.

Grieb, whose professional relationship with the zoo dates to 1994, when she became a member of the Maryland Zoological Society's Executive and Finance Committee of the Board of Directors, said she had been discussing her desire to leave with members of the board for a few months. She served as a zoo trustee from 1995 to 1999, and was the president of the board of trustees from 1999 to 2002.

Christopher Pope, chairman of the board, said that the board will lead a search process for a replacement. "We are sorry to see her go," Pope said. "She truly is leaving on her own. I think she has done a tremendous job, particularly in the last year in helping us through some very difficult financial times and coordinating our efforts with the state and the city to put the zoo on a much better financial footing."

Gov. Martin O'Malley released a statement which said: "The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is a tremendous cultural, educational and tourism asset for the citizens of Maryland. I am very grateful to Billie for the work she has done over the past five years to grow the facility, improve the visitor experience and strengthen its financial position."

In 2003, after laying off 20 employees and sending more than 400 animals to other facilities in a major cost-cutting plan, zoo officials considered lending their two elephants to another zoo, which caused a public outcry. A large number of private donations and millions of dollars in emergency aid from the state ensured that the animals stayed. With the aid came a name change from what had been known as the Baltimore Zoo.

More recently, a $5.5 million funding pledge from the state, which was earmarked for upgrades to the elephant exhibit, has been rerouted to pay for much-needed infrastructure improvements.

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