Times Chronicle & Public Spirit
$30M donation to fund veterinary hospital
NORRISTOWN >> How could $30 million help the Elmwood Park Zoo?
“It’s life changing for Elmwood, absolutely,” said Elmwood Park Zoo CEO and Executive Director Al Zone.
The multimillion-dollar anonymous donation announced in late October came to zoo officials earlier this summer. The donor, who Zone categorized as a local business owner with a passion for animals, initially reached out to zoo officials regarding his interest.
The zoo’s Chief Operating Officer Eric Donovan and Development Director Jennifer Conti then met with the donor at his home to discuss the matter further. Afterwards, he paid a visit to the zoo, located at 1661 Harding Blvd., in Norristown, which is accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“We took them on a great tour and it was literally life changing for them,” Zone said in an interview, adding,“I think they were really blown away with the experience.”
“We were asked the question: if we had this money what would we do with it?” Zone said.
It was a question that Zone easily had an answer to.
Established in 1924, the Norristown-based zoo has around 300 animals, with visitors ranging from 800,000 to 1 million people each year. When cultivating a comprehensive $150 million master plan for the zoo, revamping the veterinary hospital was the first step.
The proposed 17,000-square-foot space is slated to include exams rooms, treatment centers, and surgical suites complete with glass window bays, according to zoo officials.
“You’ll get an opportunity to look into the veterinary hospital at that point,” he continued. “You can look into our procedure rooms. You can overlook into surgery. You can even look into a CAT scan when they’re doing all that kind of work. It’s really cool.”
Dr. Michele Goodman currently serves as the zoo’s veterinarian.
“It’s exciting to be able to build something like this, not only for our amazing animals, but for her as well because she’s going to do some amazing work with her team,” Zone said.
Developing the zoo’s master plan with Anchor Management Group LLC. and Charles Cross Architecture, PC, Zone said the hospital was initially placed in a different location.
“Before, we were putting it on the other side of the creek — we were tucking it away. A lot of zoos put their veterinary hospitals out of the way, out of the main circulation of the consumer, the consumer doesn’t have access to it,” he said. “I think it’s very important, our staff thinks it’s very important to live in the world of transparency, and be able to show the work that we do.”
Once constructed, the entire space would house a 37,000-square-foot facility comprised of the hospital, a welcome center, administrative offices, a gift shop and welcome plaza. Zone stressed the importance of incorporating education and transparency into the space.
“You’ll learn about why zoos matter. Why are they here, why are we here, why are you here,” Zone said.
“We’ll tell the story of the AZA and what we do behind conservation, education, species survival, and animal welfare, and that’s a huge component of it.”
The Norristown-based zoo currently operates with nearly 100 employees and a central group of 100 volunteers.
“One thing that I love about Elmwood is we’re 20 minutes away from the oldest zoo in the nation, but we feel here we can get our experiences and our education and our animals so much closer to the consumer,” Zone said. “It’s a real boutique, intimate experience, and even with this new master plan, it’ll remain that boutique experience, which I think is crucial. This way it does’t exhaust the consumer.”
Zone, a Norristown native, expressed his excitement about the development efforts in the county seat.
“Norristown’s doing a fabulous job right now. They’re really turning a corner on what’s about to happen in Norristown,” Zone said. “Yes, the zoo’s doing great things, and I like to think that we’re a part of the revitalization, but we have awesome plans for the whole town, and I try to look at the zoo as being that nucleus, being that thing that Norristown can be proud of.”
Zone presented the zoo’s master plan to members of the Norristown Municipal Council in July. Along with the veterinary hospital and welcome plaza, Anchor Management Group President Michael Rufo told council members that other future developments would include an overall campus expansion across the creek, the construction of a pedestrian bridge, as well as Asia and South America exhibits.
Along with continued community outreach efforts, the renovations at Elmwood Park Zoo could have a significant impact on the municipality as a whole, as Municipal Administrator Crandall Jones expects more visitors to the zoo could bring opportunity for people to come to town.
“I think it’s a thoughtful plan, and they do a good job of getting the kind of support they need in order to pull it off,” Jones said. “We’re really proud to have them here in town, and to be a part of the success that they’re having.”
Along with the municipality, the Elmwood Park Zoo has a partner in Montgomery County.
“The Elmwood Park Zoo is such an important member of our community here in Norristown, but the impact is countywide. People come from all over the county and the surrounding counties to go to the zoo,” Montgomery County Commissioners’ Chairwoman Val Arkoosh said. “This $30 million anonymous grant will be transformative for the zoo.”
Zone, who also serves as a member of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, identified the zoo as a crucial resource for the county.
“They only have one zoo, which is important,” he said. “We are the region’s zoo, and if we can keep that boutique experience, it’s impressive.”
Now that Elmwood Park Zoo has received the sizable donation, zoo officials need to put it to use. When asked about the timeline for construction, Zone said it’ll need to be done in about a year to open in spring 2024.
“This building has to open for the hundredth anniversary,” Zone said.
While Zone maintains it’s a “realistic” timeline, there are apparent obstacles with supply chain and inflation, like any other construction job in 2022. But he’s determined to get it done.
“Where things get hairy is the times we are in currently, Zone said. “It is hard to get certain things.”
“it’s scary, and it’s frustrating because we need it,” he continued. “We need it. The animals need it. Norristown needs it. Montgomery County needs it. But we’ll fight through it. We’ll figure it out. We have a lot of good people behind this.”