Gov. Chris Christie and Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. marked the opening Tuesday of the Turtle Back Zoo Education Building.
The new, 12,000-square-foot building provides four additional classrooms for educational programming and summer camps, exhibit areas and a second entrance to the Zoo for groups arriving by bus or individuals who park in the Park N Ride.
“There are so many phenomenal things that keep bringing people back to visit Turtle Back Zoo—from our dynamic natural habitat themed exhibits, to our hands-on attractions and over 100 species of animals,” DiVincenzo said.
“This facility will assist us greatly in furthering our mission of promoting conservation and awareness about animals and the environment, as well as providing an improved experience for our visitors. It also will serve as a second entrance to the zoo, providing those arriving by bus a safer and more efficient entry into our facility."
The new facility is located in the eastern section of the zoo near the Treetop Adventure Course and Endangered Species Carousel.
“This is another great resource that Essex County is making available to its residents and families. New Jersey needs more places like this," Christie said.
Christie served as the honorary chairman last year of the Turtle Back Zoo’s 50th Anniversary Gala, which raised approximately $300,000 that was used toward the construction of the Education Center.
“When I was growing up, Turtle Back Zoo was a great place to learn and have a good time," Christie said. "Joe DiVincenzo is emphasizing assets like this because of the positive impact they have on our communities."
The first floor has four classrooms with moveable walls, enabling the size of the rooms to be changed, along with a large lobby, six exhibit areas, animal holding areas and storage rooms.
The second floor is half the size of the first floor and has office space for the Zoo Director, Animal Curator and a conference/break room. A large portion of the second floor is an open-air space that can be used as an outdoor classroom. The second floor will have the Treetop Adventure Course as its view.
“The mission of Turtle Back Zoo is to promote excellence in wildlife education and that’s what this building is going to help us do,” Turtle Back Zoo Director Brint Spencer said. “The additional classroom space is a great opportunity for us to expand our educational and conservation programming,” he noted.
Educational programming for the new building is being underwritten with a 10-year grant from Millburn resident Marc E. Berson, chairman of The Fidelco Group.
"For my family, it’s the education that we can provide to our youth and the opportunities they otherwise would not have access to as to why we wanted to get involved here,” Berson said. “Essex County has a tremendous public park plan. Last month we were at a ribbon cutting in Branch Brook Park and today we are at Turtle Back Zoo. Joe DiVincenzo is making good on what our forefathers did and it’s a privilege to be a part of it."
The new building will also serve as a second entrance for groups arriving by bus and as the entry point for the Treetop Adventure Course. The second point of entry will relieve congestion at the original entrance.
“This complex is the busiest place in the State of New Jersey on any given weekend with ten to fifteen thousand people coming here,” Sheriff Armando Fontoura said. “It has become a destination attraction and it is one of the safest places because of the work by our sheriff’s officers."
USA Architects from Newark received a professional services contract for $276,976 to design the building. Bismark Construction Corp. from Newark was awarded a publicly bid contract for $7,553,000 to perform the construction.
The Essex County Department of Public Works worked with the contractors to address questions and keep the project on schedule. The project was paid for with grants from the Zoological Society of New Jersey and the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund, a loan from the Essex County Improvement Authority’s Pooled Government Loan Program, funds from the Essex County Capital Budget and money raised from Turtle Back Zoo’s 50th Anniversary Gala held last year.
The Zoological Society will repay the ECIA PGLP with annual contributions over the next five years. Construction began in September 2013 and was completed in 10 months.
In the past 10 years, Essex County Turtle Back Zoo has roared back to life from the verge of closure by a previous administration. Attendance at this beloved destination has increased from 168,739 in 2002 to 621,828 in 2013 and revenue topped $4 million for the first time in 2012.
This has enabled the zoo to operate as a self-sustaining facility with revenue collected exceeding operating expenses for the last four years. In addition, Turtle Back earned its second five-year accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2011, a clear indication that an institution is committed to the highest standards in animal care, ethics, conservation and education. It also has been named the Best Zoo in New Jersey by NJ Monthly magazine in each of the last three years and received a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor.com the last two years.
“The county executive has quickly and beautifully enhanced Turtle Back Zoo and this entire complex. My community of West Orange is grateful for what has been done because it directly benefits us,” West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi said. “On behalf of my township, we congratulate the county executive on another great project."
Current hours for the zoo are Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is $11 for adults, $8 for children and senior citizens, and free for children younger than 2 years.
For more information, please call 973-731-5800 or visit www.essexcountynj.org.