Turtle Back Zoo breaks ground for new education center to open next fall

By Eunice Lee/The Star-Ledger 

During the ground breaking ceremony at Turtle Back Zoo for the new education building to be built at the West Orange zoo, on Thursday September, 12, 2013. Ed Murray/The Star-Ledger

WEST ORANGE — Turtle Back Zoo is getting bigger, but this time it's not about adding more animals.

Officials gathered today to break ground on a new $7.8 million education building to bolster the rapidly expanding zoo's educational component and to handle the increasing traffic for a growing number of visitors at the county-run South Mountain recreation complex in West Orange.

"This is going to allow us to really jump start our education program," Brint Spencer, the acting zoo director, said. "This is going to be a huge push forward."

The 12,000-square-feet building will include four classrooms with movable walls on the first floor, as well as six exhibit areas, animal holding areas, storage and a lobby that will serve as a new entrance into the zoo.

The second floor will feature an open-air space to be used as an outdoor classroom and house offices.

The project is being financed by the county capital budget, Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund, grants from the Zoological Society of New Jersey and a loan from the Essex County Improvement Authority's pooled government loan program, officials said. The zoological society will repay the improvement authority over the next five years, the county said.

The education building, which is scheduled to open next fall, will sit next to the recreation complex's zip line and high ropes obstacle course. In the last six months, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo has unveiled a $5.5 million sea lion exhibit at the zoo and opened paddle boating at the adjacent Orange reservoir.

Gov. Chris Christie, who was at the sea lion exhibit opening in April, also attended today's event and praised DiVincenzo — who has endorsed the Republican governor's re-election — for overhauling the zoo, which was nearly shuttered in the past.

DiVincenzo, a Democrat, has pushed for more than $70 million in upgrades to the county zoo since taking office as county executive in 2003. This year the zoo will generate $5 million in revenue, including about $2.3 million in profits, DiVincenzo said.

"If you don't think it's personal to him, it's personal," Christie said.

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