WEST ORANGE, NJ - Governor Chris Christie joined with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo on Thursday to break ground on the new Education Building at Turtle Back Zoo. This visit marked Christie's third appearance at the zoo this year, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Christie also served as the Honorary Chairman of the Turtle Back Zoo's 50th Anniversary Gala.
DiVincenzo was upbeat as he, along freeholder Patricia Sebold and Lou LaSalle, President of the Essex County Parks Foundation, recounted the dire situation the zoo faced in the 1980s and 1990s. The condition of the zoo had deteriorated to the point where it was on the verge of closing in 1994. However, efforts to save the zoo and momentum to build a hospital and work towards AZA (American Zoo Association) accreditation, along with the help of county, state, and private citizens, revitalized Turtle Back. While once losing over 1 million per year in revenues, this year Turtle Back Zoo and the South Mountain Recreation Complex will generate 2.3 million in profits. Attendance at the zoo is expected to top 600,000 visitors this year.
The new Education Building will be located near the Endangered Special Carousel and Treetop Adventure Course. The 12,000 square foot, two floor building will feature classrooms, administrative office space, conference area, and open air space. A new entrance to the Zoo will also be designed, which will provide a safe drop off sign bused students and groups. The building is expected to cost $7.5 million to build, with $3.5 million in capital, Open Space and Green Acres funding, and private donations. Mark Berson of Fidelco pledeged $500,000 over a ten year period to help provide educational programming. The builders will utilize several "green" components in construction with "green and recycled local materials."
Surrounded by students from the Robert Treat Academy in Newark, Governor Christie said "I have great memories of Turtle Back Zoo as kid, and it was nothing like it is now." He commended Joe DiVincenzo and committed his ongoing support because the Zoo was 'accountable' to the taxpayers. "Today's groundbreaking marks the latest expansion for Turtle Back Zoo and another opportunity for New Jerseyans to enjoy the upgraded facilities and programs available at the Zoo."
DiVincenzo said he was "glad to have Chris Christie as a friend of Turtle Back Zoo" and 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."
Outside the Recreation Complex, a group of protestors from Food and Water Watch, NJ Sierra Club, Essex/Passaic Green Party and Delaware Riverkeeper Network called for Governor Christie to Ban Fracking and Frack Waste Disposal in New Jersey.