News Column

The future ... Director-elect ready for new opportunity

July 26, 2014

By Kathi Keys, The Courier-Tribune, Asheboro, N.C.

July 26--Editor's Note: The N.C. Zoo is celebrating its 40th anniversary in August. Today's Focus, a look at the future role of the state zoo and its new leadership, is a companion piece to the Lifestyles feature on the park's early beginnings and how it came to be located in Randolph County.

ASHEBORO -- Pat Simmons looks forward to the move from a 50-acre city zoo to the countryside setting and green space which the N.C. Zoo offers.

"I'm a country girl. I prefer not to be in a concrete world, but be in nature," the zoo director-elect said on Wednesday during her three-day visit to the zoo.

Earlier in the afternoon she was formally introduced to the N.C. Zoological Park Council and N.C. Zoological Society Board of Directors at their annual joint meeting. Members of both groups had an opportunity to meet with her following the session.

Simmons is bringing more than 31 years experience of leading the Akron Zoological Park in Ohio when she arrives in North Carolina in September to begin her new job. She'll become director of the N.C. Zoo when Zoo Director Dr. David Jones retires in March 2016 after serving 22 years in the top post.

She will be one of the zoo's deputy directors and the chief executive officer, starting on Sept. 3, until she's director, becoming familiar with the operation and providing oversight for the park's future growth. Her appointment was announced in June.

She terms the opportunity "an exciting new challenge."

Simmons had a lot of challenges on her hands when she took over as Akron Zoo's director of development and administration, the No. 2 position, in 1983 and became the zoo's president and chief executive officer in 1985.

"It probably should have been closed," she said about the condition of the Akron Zoo in the early 1980s. She lovingly described it as being a "duck in a bucket."

Akron Zoo had seven employees and a $250,000 budget when she began working there.

Today, it has about 200 full- and part-time employees and an approximately $13 million operating budget. Simmons has overseen more than $60 million in zoo improvements.

She had no plans to leave the zoo, but when the opportunity to come to the N.C. Zoo arose she was eagerly interested.

"All things I'm doing at the Akron Zoo are magnified even bigger," she said.

She applauds the "tremendous green space" that's available, the zoo staff and the idea that the N.C. Zoo "is the pride of North Carolina and Randolph County."

Simmons wants to make a difference.

"I try to help people achieve great dreams and community ideas. I like to assist how I can."

She plans to provide her management expertise and all that she's also learned through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to maximize the N.C. Zoo's potential. Under her leadership, the Akron Zoo became an AZA-accredited zoo in the late 1980s.

Simmons served as the 2011-12 chair of the AZA Board of Directors and was involved in every aspect of the national organization, including accreditation, ethics, professional development, conservation education, government affairs and wildlife conservation. She's been a professional fellow member of the AZA since 1985.

At the time of her election as AZA board chair she was described as "an outstanding leader in the zoo and aquarium profession" and that the AZA-accredited institutions "will benefit from Pat's extensive experience, her thoughtful approach and her deep commitment to the mission of the association."

According to the Akron Zoo's history, the 1980s were "characterized by the modernization of the zoo's exhibits and management philosophies to build a solid financial foundation and philosophical foundation."

The zoo celebrated its 60th anniversary last year and set an all-time annual attendance record of 389,508. It had its largest expansion in 2013, too, with the opening of a four-acre exhibit featuring grizzly bears, river otters, red wolves, bald eagles, coyotes and a walk-in aviary. Births included two endangered penguin chicks and a pygmy slow loris and the zoo also acquired two Komodo dragons, a lion, octopus, tiger and snowy owl.

In April, two endangered snow leopards were born at the zoo which has more than 700 animals in the facility located just west of downtown Akron.

Last November, voters in Summit County, where the Akron Zoo is located, renewed the zoo's property tax levy, which provides operating and capital funding of approximately $8 million a year, through 2021. It received its first tax levy in 2000 and voters approved a second one in 2006, an indication of the continual community support of its zoo.

Simmons said that the Akron Zoo was city run until 1980 when the operations were turned over to the zoo's nonprofit organization.

She's proud of the the way the Akron community has supported its zoo.

"I do believe the impossible happens -- maybe not as quick as you want."

And now Simmons is looking to become a key player in another opportunity.

"I'm looking forward to it," she said about her move to North Carolina.

Name: L. Patricia "Pat" Simmons

New job: N.C. Zoo Chief Executive Officer and deputy director

Education: Bachelor of Fine Arts, University of Cincinnati; Master of Arts in management, University of Akron

Experience: Development researcher at Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio; director of Development and Administration, Akron Zoo; president and Chief Executive Officer, Akron Zoo

Family: Husband, Bruce, retired University of Akron professor; son, Frank, senior at Ohio State University

Pets: Three yellow Labradors -- Twister, Sky, Hailie

Favorite Zoo Animal: Snow leopards (two were born in April at the Akron Zoo)


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Source: Courier-Tribune (Asheboro, NC)

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