It has been almost 25 years since a large crowd of children, parents and teachers gathered in the parking lot at Essex County Turtle Back Zoo to save this treasure from being closed. Today, Turtle Back is a thriving, dynamic destination where our 900,000 visitors annually see endangered species and learn about conservation and the importance of animals.
When I was serving as Freeholder President, the Blue Ribbon panel I commissioned to study the zoo recognized its potential as an educational and recreational facility and recommended it be kept open. Since I became Essex County Executive in 2003, one of my initiatives has been to transform Turtle Back into a first-class facility. During the last 17 years, we have modernized the infrastructure, created new natural habitat themed animal exhibits and introduced amenities to enhance our visitors’ experience.
Our latest project is to create a new amphitheater for educational programs. Our current amphitheater is not conducive to this type of activity and does not have space where animals can be kept before the presentations begin. Therefore, we rely on the four classrooms in our Education Building to present these enrichment programs, which is hardly adequate space to meet our daily needs.
On an average day, we welcome about 2,200 children from various schools and recreation programs but only have space to provide just 150 students with the opportunity to participate in an enrichment program. In the past, groups that came to the zoo passively learned about the importance of each animal by strolling along the paths, watching the animals and reading the signs. Now there is greater demand for an interactive experience. The planned 500-seat addition will provide the opportunity to significantly increase the audience we currently reach with our educational programming and help satisfy requirements of the three nationally recognized organizations that accredit the zoo.
Like many of our projects, the amphitheater is being partially funded with a grant, this one a special appropriation from the State. Relying on grants, NJ Green Acres funding, corporate and philanthropic contributions, Zoological Society of NJ support and individuals’ donations have enabled us to invest over $75 million of improvements at Turtle Back Zoo without placing a large burden on our taxpayers. In fact, the zoo is unique in that it has been a self-sufficient facility for the last decade, meaning the revenue collected from admissions covers operating costs. This fiscal success contributed to Essex earning its first-ever Aaa bond rating, the highest rating available and the gold standard for financial stability and strength.
There have been concerns about the impact the amphitheater will have on the environment. Since 2003, as the zoo has expanded from 30 to 40 acres, we have followed the stringent guidelines set by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection and the NJ Soil Erosion and Sediment Control Act to address runoff and erosion. The retention basins and modern drainage systems we have installed when making improvements help reduce run off and address long-standing flooding issues that existed in South Mountain Reservation long before Turtle Back opened 56 years ago.
In addition, we are estimating that about one acre of land from South Mountain Reservation will be needed for the amphitheater, which is just a small piece when considering the reservation encompasses over 2,200 acres. I am a great proponent of open space preservation: We have increased the number of open spaces in the Essex County Parks System from 17 to 23, planted 20,000 new trees throughout Essex County and preserved over 500 acres in our densely populated county, including adding 55 acres to South Mountain. I believe enhancing our educational component is a reasonable use for the land.
The amphitheater isn’t designed to attract more visitors, just enhance services to those we currently welcome. In addition, a 500-car deck (our third parking facility) opening in December will provide more on-site parking and reduce the number of vehicles parking on Cherry Lane. As I promised, an updated Turtle Back Zoo Master Plan will be completed by year’s end.
We have created something special in which all residents of Essex County should take great pride. Along with Turtle Back Zoo, we created the South Mountain Recreation Complex where residents enjoy the walking path around the Orange Reservoir, picnic pavilion, paddle boating and playground. I want Turtle Back Zoo to continue to thrive and, along with the Complex, be an attraction that promotes economic development, invigorates the local economy and encourages Essex residents to spend their money where they live.
Just like 25 years ago, let’s rally in support of Turtle Back Zoo so people of all ages can continue to experience the wonders of the wild, gain an appreciation for animals and become the next generation of environmental stewards.
Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. is the Essex County Executive.
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