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Simonson takes reins of Lake Superior Zoo

Erik Simonson, assistant chief of the Duluth Fire Department and state senator, answers reporters' questions during a press conference Thursday at the Lake Superior Zoo, where it was announced he would become the zoo's new CEO. At right is Diana Bouschor Dodge, president of the board of directors of the Lake Superior Zoological Society. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

On the day he was introduced as the new leader of the Lake Superior Zoo, Erik Simonson recalled the moment he first pictured himself in the CEO role.

The Minnesota senator and assistant fire chief for Duluth was reading about the last full-time person in the role — a four-month hire who resigned in May to return home to family in the Twin Cities. Simonson thought to himself that the zoo needed a person from within the community — someone with a history here who held a passionate belief in a place once headlined by polar bears which had fallen on harder times since the 2012 flood that wiped out that iconic exhibit and more.

“Within five minutes,” he said at his introductory news conference on Thursday morning, “I was thinking, ‘You just described yourself.’”

Simonson, 49, will retire early from the Duluth Fire Department after 27 years, and take over at the zoo Sept. 18. He’ll continue with the state Legislature, which is at its busiest during winter when the zoo is at its quietest.

The zoo’s board of directors, which has once had to go hat in hand to the city for operating funds in recent years, believed it struck a home run with the hire.

“We have really lucked out,” said Diana Bouschor Dodge, zoo board president, who cited Simonson’s management skills and network of local and state connections as key attributes.  

Zoo spokesman Rob Karwath called the hire “a great win.”

Simonson identified changes to come — particularly in advance of the zoo’s 100th birthday in 2023, which he cited as a big moment on the horizon. But core values will remain stable.

“Education, conservation — and I want to bring a twist of sustainability,” he said with a solar-paneled veranda over his shoulder and the tiger exhibit’s manmade waterfall providing a trickling soundtrack to what everyone on the zoo’s outdoor balcony was calling exciting news.

In addition to the big hire, the zoo faces an accreditation hearing Sept. 9 in Indianapolis with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which interim director Dave Benson said, “I expect to be a positive experience.”

Beyond that, there is a $4 million phase of a larger capital campaign that is expected to bring the zoo a new centerpiece titled Bear Country. Half the money will come from the city’s dedicated tourism sales tax revenues and the rest will be fundraised.

Simonson believed that was where his expertise will come in. He doesn’t expect his biggest impact to come from behind a desk, rather out in the community, where he said he will “be an advocate for the zoo everywhere, every day.”

Having written bills that included zoo funding in the past, Simonson said his role as a legislator will give him “a lever” to seek future state funds.

The hiring was reminiscent of the transformation of the Great Lakes Aquarium under Jack LaVoy, a one-time Duluth state legislator who later infused the flagging attraction with vitality. LaVoy retired this summer with the aquarium expected to surpass 150,000 visitors in 2017.

The zoo got less than half that many visitors in 2016, Benson said, citing roughly 70,000 visitors. A new butterfly exhibit has been a popular draw this year, but it’s too early to tell what the visitor numbers are.

Simonson said he believes in current zoo staff. They’re passionate, like him, he said, and capable of helping him to lead a rebound.

“This is an exciting time,” Simonson said. “It’s a day that should represent new opportunities.”

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