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Milestones: Centennial Celebration

Dickerson Park Zoo marks 100 years as longtime director plans to retire in 2024

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Several businesses in the Springfield community – most instantly recognizable by name, if not also reputation – are reaching significant ages this year, either 50, 100 or 150 years in operation. Springfield Business Journal is checking in with a handful of them in a multipart series called Milestones.

Dickerson Park Zoo’s longtime director, Mike Crocker, said he intends to put off retirement until at least after the facility’s centennial, which continues throughout this year. It’s a professional goal he’s set to achieve as he is targeting walking away in 2024 from his place of employment for the past 47 years.

“I don’t have a specific date. The closest I’ve tied it down to is late March,” he said, adding he still needs to visit with human resources and calculate retirement benefits.

It’s a task he admits he hasn’t made time for yet. After all, he has plenty to keep him busy at the zoo, which Crocker said sits on roughly 90 acres – 56 of which are in active use. The remainder is for potential future development.

He said the zoo’s annual visitor count averages 200,000. The zoological park at 1401 W. Norton Road, which is a division of the Springfield-Greene County Park Board and home to over 400 animals, is open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day and particularly inclement days of winter weather.

The zoo isn’t just a local draw, as Crocker said around 30% of visitors are Springfield residents or live within a few miles of the city. Around 10% come from over 125 miles away with the remainder living within 75 miles of the attraction.

According to city officials, the estate of Jerome Dickerson Sr. sold the tract of land to the Springfield Park Board in 1922. Up until then, the city zoo was at Phelps Grove Park. The zoo moved the following year to its current location. During the late 1920s and 1930s, federal programs, including the Works Project Administration, helped develop and manage the zoo.

Animal aid
Roughly 54 employees work at the zoo with a near-even split between city staff and Friends of the Zoo, a 501(c)(3) organization that generates revenue to help support the attraction. Crocker is a city employee, whereas Joey Powell is public relations and marketing director for Dickerson Park Zoo and Friends of the Zoo. In addition to the roles she started with when hired in 2016, Powell said she also now does event coordination after the Park Board eliminated the full-time position in 2020.

The zoo also employs 25 seasonal employees who work in areas such as concessions and the gift shop, while another 120 volunteers help annually.

It was a slow start for its internship program, which Crocker said launched in 2008.

“We had one student the first year. That was at the request of University of Missouri-Columbia,” he said. “They have a captive wild animal management minor that requires a 150-hour internship. A delegation of them came down to talk to me and see if I would consider starting an internship program.”

By year two, the internship number grew to around eight.

“Then it grew really fast after that,” he said. “Now, we typically have over 100 a year.”

Powell said some interns are international students, coming from countries such as Brazil, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. They work at the zoo anywhere from a week to a full semester.

Founding friends
Crocker said the zoo’s annual operating budget is about $5.4 million, noting Friends of the Zoo provides roughly 40% of the total. Benefits for members of Friends of the Zoo, which Powell said currently totals 4,700, include free daily admission and one-day passes to share with friends or family, subscription to the zoo’s magazine, Wild Times, and various on-site discounts, such as at the cafe and gift shop. Annual memberships start at $79.

For nonmembers, admission fees go directly to the zoo, Powell said. Additional charges for activities and refreshments inside the zoo benefit the nonprofit.

“Once inside, everything you do is Friends of the Zoo – the train, the giraffe deck, the cafe, the gift shop and education classes, as well as all of the events,” she said.

Ball of the Wild and Brew at the Zoo are two Friends of the Zoo-organized events. Andrew Tasset, vice president and marketing manager for Central Bank in Springfield, said the company has supported the zoo for decades.

“The zoo is one of those community staples that has always been around,” he said. “At Central Bank, we want the community to continue to enjoy such a popular destination in Springfield.”

Noting Ball of the Wild as the zoo’s signature fundraiser, Tasset said Central Bank has been a corporate sponsor for over 20 years. He said the bank spends $2,500 annually to support the event.

“It’s always one of those top events in the city each year,” he said.

Crocker said the current zoo budget is a long way from the early 1970s when the Park Board considered closing the attraction. He said the city wasn’t putting in resources and the facility deteriorated. By a narrow board vote in 1975, they decided to keep it open.

“So, Friends of the Zoo, which was originally called Greater Ozarks Zoological Society, formed and they started raising money. It was a long, slow process,” he said, noting the first significant city money built an elephant and giraffe building in 1979, which marked the first major new animal exhibit at the zoo in 46 years.

Gradually, more money was invested by the city, he said, leading to additional animal exhibits, buildings and attractions, such as a petting zoo, miniature train ride and cafe.

“One thing you can’t easily budget for – because most of the time we don’t know – is people leaving money in their estates when they pass away,” Crocker said. “One year, we might get $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 that we didn’t even know about.”

Celebration mode
The July 15 centennial celebration event, which included proclamations from local, county and state officials, as well as a ribbon-cutting ceremony, helped attract more than 2,100 visitors to the zoo, according to officials. Crocker said an average Saturday with good weather ranges 1,500-2,000.

“We wanted it to be a mixture of a fun birthday – think a kid’s birthday party-type atmosphere – and then the pomp and circumstance,” Powell said. “And it was exactly that.”

The event was a long time in consideration, she added.

“I’ve had a Post-it note for seven years on my computer that just says ‘100th,’” she said. “Having that thing in your head for that many years and then having it come off – from the weather to the elected officials who really took it seriously and were behind it and came up with wonderful resolutions – we have our history documented.”

A couple months after the ceremony, the zoo just celebrated some more good news. It retained its accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums – a designation it has held since 1986. The accreditation is good for five years.

“So, that’s 40 years of being accredited,” Powell said. “There’s only about 250 zoos that have that accreditation worldwide, so that puts us in the company of San Diego, Kansas City, St. Louis – big zoos, and it’s a level of excellence. They come in and inspect everything. It’s down to how our gift shop is run to how the animals are cared for. That’s a big feather in our cap.”

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