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Paws for Effect

How the Business Community Has Made the Zoo in Forest Park a Pet Project

Paws for EffectThe Zoo in Forest Park has long been part of the fabric of Western Mass. But only a few years ago the facility was on the ropes and in danger of closing its doors. Members of the business community volunteered their time, energy, and imagination, and saw the zoo through that crisis. But their work to keep the institution thriving is ongoing.

Zooey was sucking greedily from a baby bottle as John Lewis cradled the tiny, 9-day-old female spider monkey on his lap and gently stroked her head.

Lewis is the director of the Zoo in Forest Park, and has essentially taken over for the baby’s mother, who didn’t show much interest in her after she was born.

He feeds Zooey every two hours, around the clock, and carries her with him in a satchel around his neck, as her arms and legs stay tightly wrapped around a stuffed animal.

The devotion Lewis shows to the newest of the 165 species represented at the zoo is mirrored by members of the facility’s board of directors, who are dedicated to keeping the nonprofit attraction alive, and also raising awareness of what they see as a polished but still-little-known gem in the heart of Greater Springfield.

The story of how the board, and the business community in general, have helped make the Zooey saga and many others like it reality is an intriguing one packed with drama, many lead characters, and one pivotal chapter. That would be the winter of 2003-04, when a confluence of factors almost forced the zoo to close its doors.

But the board and individual members saw the landmark attraction through that rough patch, and the zoo has not only survived, it is now a self-sustaining oasis tended by board members and staff passionate to show off the new facility, which they have transformed into a wondrous escape for families.

“The zoo is like a diamond in the setting of Forest Park,” said board President Scott Foster, an attorney with Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas, LLP. “We want to get people here and see what we have to offer. We are still fighting the old monkey-house perception, with metal bars and the smell of a place that wasn’t clean or somewhere you wouldn’t want to go.

“When you mention the old zoo to many adults, they get a look on their face and scrunch up their nose,” he continued. “We have to overcome that, and it’s simply a matter of getting people here. When people visit who haven’t been here for 20 years, they tell us they had no idea this existed. They also say they are coming back and bringing their families. It’s a clean, well managed, enjoyable place.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Foster and other members of the board about their passion for the zoo and why the institution is important to the fabric of the region.

Animal Instincts

Tracing the history of the zoo, Lewis said the facility opened in the early 1900s. “At that time, the entire park was part of the zoo. It started out with swans in the aquatic gardens and expanded from there.” The zoo was originally owned and operated by the city of Springfield, which ran it until the ’60s.

In 1963 a zoological society was formed to support the attraction, and took over operations in 1968. “The city didn’t want to run it anymore,” Foster explained. “They found homes for most of the animals and just kept the Kiddieland plot of one and a half acres.

As the transition from a city-operated venture to one run by a nonprofit evolved, the society also took over the concession stand, which stood outside the gates to Kiddieland. In the early ’70s, the city also constructed a building that had a kitchen, medical room, and office with funds raised through a ‘Step Out for People’ walk.

In the early ’80s, the society began talks with the city that led to an agreement that allowed the organization to lease about five acres of land for $1 so it could expand the facility. The Kiddieland Zoo was excavated in the mid-’80s, and the remaining animals were moved to the new zoo.

The city hadn’t done much maintenance over the years, and the society’s goal was simply to keep the zoo open. For several years, the city provided three full-time employees to help with the work.

But that ended during the winter of 2003. At that time, the zoo had an annual operating budget of $900,000. There was a full-time executive director, a full-time marketing person, an office manager, and an assistant manager.

Things were set in a sudden downward spiral when the executive director resigned, the state cut all funding, and the city, which had downsized its help to one employee, told the zoo it had to pay the $40,000 cost of that person.

The zoo needed a lot of repairs, and the financial picture was so bleak, Foster said the society thought it would have to shut down the operation.

“It was a perfect storm of events. It almost toppled us,” he said. “I became chairman of the board that winter, and to get through the season, the board members loaned the zoo more than $60,000.” Those loans, which have been forgiven, were supplemented by $15,000 from the Community Foundation of Western Mass.

Volunteering Information

Lewis has been with the zoo since he was a young child. “I grew up with the lions, donkeys, and monkeys,” he said. “My parents managed the zoo from the late ’60s until the early ’80s, and I was a little volunteer zookeeper when I was 6 years old. As I grew up, I was there after school and on weekends.”

When Foster was a child, his father worked for the National Park Service, and he lived inside the parks. The first-hand knowledge of operations allowed him to see that the Zoo in Forest Park needed to be operated as a small park. “I told the board that we needed a working director,” Foster said.

Lewis — who had advanced over time to become senior zookeeper and, later, director of operations — was already doing that, so the board appointed him executive director. (His son, John Lewis II, is now the senior zookeeper.)

The snack bar was given back to the city, the office and public-relations positions were eliminated, and those jobs were taken over by board members. “The chairman’s job was that of a volunteer executive, who did everything from grant applications to dealing with personnel issues,” Foster said. “The role evolved far beyond the normal duties of a nonprofit. And to this day, everyone on the board takes part in volunteer activities, from marketing to finance to work on a facilities committee.”

Fortunately, most board members had extensive business experience.

“Not only did they lend their expertise, along with tools and materials, they set the tone and policy for the lowest-level volunteers, providing service that in some cases included physical labor,” Foster said. “That winter in 2003 to 2004, we realized we would have to work together differently. If we had an idea, we had to implement it ourselves. It was a learning process, and we only hired staff when it was critical to our mission.

“The strategy worked,” he continued, “because the board members became so actively involved, and were so passionate about making sure the zoo survived, that it bred its own commitment. The board took over ownership of the place.”

Actions taken after that by 18-year board member Evan Plotkin exemplify the spirit that was adopted. One day, when the 2004 season was over, he was sitting in Outback Steakhouse in West Springfield. As he looked at its sign, the idea to expand and open an Outback exhibit at the zoo was born.

“We had all these great animals that were indigenous to Australia — emus, kangaroos, and ostriches,” he said. “It made sense to create a new exhibit for them.”

Plotkin took immediate action and approached the manager, asking if the Outback would sponsor a new exhibit.

He was referred to the central office in Florida, and months later, after repeated calls and conversations, the company agreed.

The timing was serendiptious, Foster said, because Outback was opening a new restaurant in Enfield and wanted the positive publicity. “They were trying to create awareness of who they were, and what better way to do that than to sponsor a new exhibit,” Plotkin said. “It was a co-promotion that led to a great marriage.”

The board had agreed to the idea, and in the fall of 2005 it made the decision to reshape 15% of zoo’s footprint. “It was entirely due to Evan,” Foster said, adding that his efforts showcase the work ethic the board had adopted. “We realized we couldn’t rely on others for money or to get things done,” he said.

Plotkin, second-generation president of NAI Samuel D. Plotkin and Associates Inc., a Springfield-based commercial real-estate company, said he contacted business people he had relationships with and asked them to help build the new exhibit. “They were all so generous,” he said. “It would have cost five times as much to build without the donations and in-kind services we received.”

Today, a plaque stands in the Outback, recognizing the many businesses that made contributions. “Bill Guzzie Landscaping did a lot of work, and so did many others,” Plotkin said, adding that interns from the Homebuilders Assoc. of Western Mass. and the carpentry program at Putnam Vocational High School built the sheds.

Plotkin said that, during the time the Outback was built, he practically spent more time there than he did working at his own business. “I remember going to one important meeting where there was an awful smell. I was wearing a suit, and I looked down at my shoes and realized I had emu dung on them,” he said.

But the end result was worth it. “The zoo transcends time,” Plotkin said, adding that he first fell in love with it during visits with his grandmother when he was a small boy. “It doesn’t go out of style, and is a wonderful place where families can interact with nature and bond together.”

He believes the zoo is an important cultural and entertainment attraction that helps attract residents to the area, who ultimately become part of the local workforce. “The zoo is one of the top five tourist attractions in the Western Mass. region,” Plotkin said. Between 60,000 and 100,000 people visit it each year.

Deer Friends

The zoo’s growth and survival has been dependent not only on board members, but on partnerships with the business community. The Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation has been a big supporter, donating the Discovery Center, while the display cages inside came from a grant from MassMutual.

Last October, the zoo and Big Y kicked off a pilot program at one of the chain’s stores, by which the zoo gets all of the produce that doesn’t sell.

But funds are hard to come by for the seasonal attraction, whose annual operating budget has been pared down to more than $600,000. The zoo takes in about $400,000 from gate fees and its many educational programs, which include birthday parties, but recently suffered a loss of funding from the state. It was promised $50,000 in fiscal year 2009, which Gov. Deval Patrick reduced to $25,000. “And in FY 2010, we got nothing,” Foster said. “It’s a hard sell to the state to support this and other small zoos.”

But since that rugged winter of 2004-05, the zoo’s fund-raising has taken a new direction. It eliminated the annual golf tournament and now focuses entirely on events that would bring people to the zoo.

The Outback Steakhouse paid for all of the food and beverages for two years at an annual gala it expanded after the new exhibit opened. “They brought in glassware, flatware, everything,” Foster said. “It was enough to set us on a new path, and we are eternally grateful because it was the boost we needed. We have had more than 300 people attend every year, and it continues to grow. It’s called ‘A Party with the Animals Night’ and for the past few years, B’Shara’s has provided catering for us at a reduced fee and made generous donations to our live auction.”

The success of that party led board members to think about other events that could be held at the zoo. They turned to local organizations, offering them a tent inside the zoo.

“Chamber After 5 events have been held here. The Latino Chamber has used it, and so has the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield. Last year, the Homebuilders Association had their appreciation day picnic here,” Foster said. “These events help raise funds, but, more importantly, get people here to see what we have to offer. At any given event, you will find at least one person who has never been here and didn’t know we existed.”

Businesses are helping to advance that cause, and last year, UBS sponsored a free day at the zoo.

But for board members, the commitment continues, and some have made it almost a full-time job.

“I’m pleased with the way things are going,” Plotkin said. “I’ve given my heart and soul to this place. We don’t have a big pot of money to pull from when times are rough. But people who come here have an amazing experience. It’s an attraction that is fun, entertaining, and educational, and it promotes environmental issues and concerns about wildlife. When I see babies in carriages here, they are laughing.”

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