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Sen. Erik Simonson Named CEO at Lake Superior Zoo

August 24, 2017 10:21 PM

DULUTH, Minn. -  State Sen. Erik Simonson has been named the Lake Superior Zoo's new CEO.

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Simonson takes over for former CEO Corey Leet, who had to resign after only a few months due to family reasons.

Simonson said it will be a big change for him. 

"If anybody would have guessed that it would have been me standing here today, you probably should have played the lottery last night as well," Simonson joked.

According to Simonson, the zoo has wonderful people already working with animal care, and he would like to be involved in a leadership role, pushing for more marketing and fundraising. 

"Ultimately, the underlying mission of the zoo should not ever change," he said. "It's really about education, it's about conservation, and I want to bring in a twist of sustainability."

He is currently an assistant chief with the Duluth Fire Department, but he said he will be done with that position on September 14.

Fire Chief Dennis Edwards said he has nothing but good things to say about Simonson, and the department is "losing a wealth of experience" when he hangs up his hat. 

Simonson starts as zoo CEO September 18. He will make $80,000 in the role, which a PR representative said is the same as the last two CEOs.

He comes in ahead of a $15 million planned reconstruction. 

Interim CEO Dave Benson said the zoo had about 70,000 visitors in 2016. Benson said they are slightly ahead of that this year, which he credits to the new butterfly exhibit. 

The zoo is also coming up an a new accreditation. 

"Really, we're done except for showing up at the hearing on Sept. 9 in Indianapolis at the annual meeting," Benson said. 

Benson said he has enjoyed the interim role, but he is looking forward to passing it on to Simonson. 

"I really think he is going to be the right person," Benson said. "The zoo is really poised for growth and a really bright future."

The first phase of the reconstruction is a $4 million Bear Country exhibit. According to zoo representatives, they have about half the funds they need, which is coming from the city's tourism sales tax. 

Simonson will balance the CEO role with his duties in the state legislature, as he plans to continue serving there as well. He said he thinks it will work because the way he envisions the role, much of his work will be off-site anyway. 

He said he doesn't believe his government role is the reason he got the job, but he said he hopes it will be beneficial. 

"You cannot deny that success in a role like this and success in an organization such as this one really depends on a network of relationships," he said. 

He was elected a state senator in 2016, so his term ends in 2020.

The zoo was founded in 1923, so it will celebrate is 100th anniversary in six years. Simonson said he hopes it will be transformed by then. It has struggled since severe damage in the flood of 2012. 


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