Zoological Society of Florida hopes third candidate the charm for director post
By Risa Polansky
As plans for a water park at Miami Metrozoo gain traction, the Zoological Society of Florida has been on its own wild ride trying to secure a new leader.
Nestor Rodriguez, most recently chief executive officer of Voices for Children Foundation, is to take up the post Sept. 12, the society announced last week.
Longtime society President and CEO Glenn Ekey resigned in spring 2007 and later became chief development officer at the Palm Beach Zoo.
Manny Gonzalez, recruited from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, served five months with the zoological society before leaving this April.
In June, Alexandra Villoch of the Miami Herald's advertising department was set to replace him, but decided later in the month to remain with the paper.
Mr. Rodriguez says he's raring to go.
"The position offers a unique challenge. It is a significant flagship organization — I would say a jewel in the crown of Miami organizations," he said. "The zoo is poised for tremendous growth over the next 30 years."
In the works: plans for an entertainment center, 23-acre water park and 200-room hotel.
Miami-Dade commissioners last month cleared up lingering land-use issues, opening the door for the county to seek contractors to develop the complex. The park could be finished within three years.
Mr. Gonzalez, who resigned after five months, accepted the position with the society after opening a Six Flags amusement park in Mexico and transforming the Columbus Zoo into an entertainment complex.
He hoped to do the same here, but "unfortunately, the board was not ready to take on the challenges my vision brought about," he said in an interview shortly after resigning. "I had big dreams for the zoo and the society."
He hoped the society would operate the new Metrozoo park.
The county plans to develop and operate it as a public/private partnership with an outside company.
Mr. Rodriguez said it's too early to comment on whether his visions align more with the board and county's because he needs time to acclimate to the project plans.
But board Chair Merrett Stierheim said, "I don't see any conflict there at all."
Mr. Rodriguez's experience in cultural development and fundraising should serve well to help guide the zoo's growth, Mr. Stierheim said.
The society, which serves as the non-profit support arm for Metrozoo, "relies on donations, bequeaths and fundraising activities, so Nestor's experience fits in very well there," Mr. Stierheim said.
Mr. Rodriguez ran Voices for Children, the funding arm of the 11th Judicial Circuit Guardian Ad Litem Program, for eight years.
He served previously as director of development of the Florida Philharmonic and Miami City Ballet, executive director of the National Chopin Foundation and artistic director of Festival Miami, the University of Miami's annual music fest.
Now, "my first order of business is to get to know the organization," he said.
Among his main aims in his new role with the zoological society: "to make this operation more relevant to the community."