July 6, 2008

New Executive Director Takes Helm at Zoo

By Kathy Lynn Gray, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Jul. 6--He calls himself the "third J," right behind Jerry and Jack.

"If my name was Mark, it wouldn't work," jokes Jeff Swanagan, the new executive director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

On Tuesday, Swanagan took the job Jerry Borin held for 15 years, and before that, TV star Jack Hanna. And while his mantra is to listen, listen and listen before laying out goals and plans, the 50-year-old former Columbus Zoo employee already has a few thoughts on the zoo's future.

"It's not a broken, struggling organization, so my job's more of providing the right strategic direction," said Swanagan, who moved to a rented house in Muirfield last weekend from a downtown condominium in Atlanta, where he was in charge of the Georgia Aquarium.

On the theory that high gasoline prices might curtail long-distance vacations for families, he wants the zoo's marketing gurus to reach out to Columbus' hospitality network and convince members that the zoo is the No. 1 attraction they should promote.

While that should include the obvious -- hotels and the convention industry -- he also wants to approach the working people with whom visitors come in contact, such as cab drivers and hotel concierges.

"They're the ones who really sell your city," Swanagan said. "We want to have as big a circle as we can make it."

The new director also wants to make better use of the Internet, jazzing up the zoo's Web site and using a bag of Internet tricks to publicize zoo specials, events and animal information.

And he's already involved in the planning of the next zoo expansion, the polar-bear exhibit scheduled to open in late 2009.

"We have to figure out how to make this as awesome as possible," Swanagan said.

He wants an exhibit that immerses visitors, engages all their senses and helps family members share their experience.

"It's getting the kids off the iPods and the computer and having families actually talking to one another," said Swanagan, a father of five.

He said he learned as a zoo camp counselor in the early 1980s that the experiences visitors share are worth much more than what they learn.

"It's not about the content; it's about teaching the heart," he said. "Everybody thinks the zoo is all about animals but it's not. This is primarily about the people."

That point of view is what helped convince Susan Rector, who chaired the zoo board's search committee, that Swanagan was the right fit.

"Experiential learning is the future of all zoos," she said. "People want to interact. Jeff's emphasis is on the hands-on, the very visual. He has all the qualities we want."

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