The Akron Zoo announced Tuesday that President Patricia Simmons has accepted the No. 2 position at the North Carolina Zoo, near Asheboro.
She will remain at the Akron Zoo until Aug. 31, then become deputy director and chief operating officer at the largest walk-through, natural-habitat zoo in the world, near the geographic center of the state.
“It was a difficult decision to leave the Akron Zoo, which is near and dear to my heart,” Simmons said in a media release. “I feel our zoo is in a great place right now, and I am leaving at a high point.”
Simmons, 57, joined the zoo in 1985 as its third full-time director. She was 28 and a rarity — one of three female zoo directors nationwide.
She was taking over a pitiable place. The zoo was decrepit, didn’t have enough money to operate, much less expand or improve. It had a bad reputation, as vandals had killed, beaten and stolen animals. The U.S. Agriculture Department had cited it for its dirty and archaic animal exhibits.
Simmons turned it around, organizing fundraisers, urging staffers to “smile, smile, smile” and gradually improving the premises.
In 2000, she persuaded city and county leaders to put the zoo’s first levy on the ballot. It since has been approved three times and now provides $8.1 million a year toward the zoo’s annual operating budget of $10 million.
She developed a conservation education program and implemented a 14-year master plan that included adding more than 30 animal exhibits, the latest being the Mike and Mary Stark Grizzly Ridge, which opened in July.
Her work was rewarded, with her total compensation package in 2012 reaching $239,600, which included a bonus of $40,000. That put her salary above that of peers running much larger zoos in Cleveland ($142,516) and Toledo ($217,757 in 2011), according to a Beacon Journal survey of nonprofit Form 990 reports filed with the IRS.
As her salary grew, so did attendance. Last year, the zoo had the largest attendance in its history with more than 389,000 visitors.
Now she will take on an even larger role at the North Carolina Zoo, which took the lead in salvaging and rebuilding war-torn zoos in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Bagdad in the 2000s.
With 700,000 yearly visitors, the Asheboro zoo is the fourth most popular visitors’ site in the state, according to Carolina Publishing Associates, which conducts yearly surveys of attendance at the state’s museums and historic attractions. In addition, Simmons has a path to promotion: She will move into the director position in 2016, when current director Dr. David Jones, a veterinarian, retires, according to the Akron Zoo’s media release.
Simmons said her new position is “a wonderful opportunity for me to use my experience” to assist another zoo accredited by the American Zoological Association.
The Akron Zoo’s board will conduct a national search to find Simmons’ successor, spokesman Dave Barnhardt said.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.