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Lake Superior Zoo cuts staffing by one-third; Director says layoffs necessary to balance budget

Erik Simonson, assistant chief of the Duluth Fire Department and state senator, answers reporters' questions during a press conference in August 2017 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. (News Tribune file photo)

The Lake Superior Zoo let go of about one-third of its staff Monday, as its new director, Sen. Erik Simonson, seeks to financially stabilize the operation.

Simonson said the zoo is eliminating 12 positions, including two that are currently unfilled — a full-time zookeeper job and a part-time maintenance worker.

In all, 10 people received word their services would no longer be needed at the zoo. The cuts affected three full-time employees — two in marketing and one in a maintenance position — and seven part-time employees, all working in maintenance roles.

In 2017, the zoo would have been fully staffed year-round with a complement of 36 people, about one-third of people working full-time and the remainder in part-time capacities, according to Simonson. He noted that the zoo also hires additional seasonal staff during the busy summer months, and that practice will not change.

"This may be one of the most difficult things that I've ever had to go through, but at the end of the day, we only have X number of dollars to work with, and I just can't anticipate any more coming in," Simonson said.

"So what I did is spend the last four weeks meeting with the senior management team here — the different directors — and trying to come up with what we can do going forward. What does this look like? What can we accomplish? What can we not accomplish? It's not like none of these positions are valuable to the zoo, because they are. But this really has to be about taking a step backwards to take two steps forward," he said.

"Affecting somebody's employment is one of the hardest decisions that anyone ever has to make, but the flip side is that there just isn't money to continue just going forward. That's the reality until we get new exhibits in and more attendance and more gate revenue. There's just no way to physically accomplish it," Simonson said.

He explained that plans to rebuild and repurpose the now-defunct Polar Shores exhibit space, converting it to a woodland bear exhibit, should help draw more visitors. Simonson intends to launch a capital campaign next month to support that effort.

"This is just a very unfortunate part of our strategy to revitalize the zoo, and the first thing we have to do is show the city that we're being responsible here on our end. That's what we're going to do," he said.

Earlier this month, the zoo requested and received a $200,000 subsidy from the city of Duluth, as well as the extension of a deadline to repay a $300,000 line of credit it had received a couple of years previous.

David Montgomery, Duluth's chief administrative officer, said Simonson knew he was stepping into a difficult situation when he assumed leadership of the zoo and pledged to establish a sustainable operating plan, even if that meant making tough staffing decisions.

"I think it's a very difficult thing to do, and I don't envy him for doing it. But Erik also is a pretty astute and pretty decisive in terms of looking at a situation. So I think he's carrying through on what they've basically been saying they need to do," Montgomery said.

"I think Erik is very serious about the role he has taken on, and I think it is a commitment to the zoo board and the zoo as much as it is a commitment to the city. I think it's a commitment to the organization to say, 'I will try to find a sustainable ongoing operating plan for the zoo.' "

As the zoo achieves a more stable financial footing and begins to refresh its exhibits, Simonson said he will re-examine its staffing.

"As we do that, I think what's incredibly important for the zoo and its operation is a full-time on-staff marketing director. We've had folks performing various functions within that department, but the department director position has gone unfilled for too long in my mind, and that's one of the pieces that I want to fill in 2018, with the understanding that some of the functions that being done by the folks affected today will be spread to other people, whether it be graphic design or as member development coordinator, those are going to get passed on and spread out to other people. But our hope is that by 2019 we will have a fresh new exhibit here, and we can start to actually increase revenues and start to take a real close look at what we're doing," Simonson said.

Montgomery expressed confidence that Simonson is up to the task at hand.

"When Erik takes something on, he takes it on fully. He jumps full in, and I think he will give this his full effort to try to get to a plan that works for the zoo and that allows them to find a future path forward," he said.