Again, it was with great pleasure that I accepted the task of moderating a panel of local business men and women participating in the annual Absolutely Business Forum to discuss how their businesses fared in 2015 and what the outlook is for 2016. Arriving early at the Riveredge Resort I had the opportunity to observe the serene surrounding of the St. Lawrence River and Boldt Castle. It was amazing to me that, although many of the participants had never met, they crossed paths in many ways in the course of doing business.
At my table were Dr. John Scott Foster, executive director of the New York State Zoo, Watertown; Jane Aikins, director of membership development, The Greater Watertown North Country Chamber of Commerce; Nic Darling, local sales manager North Region, Time Warner Cable; Phil Randazzo, owner, Coyote Moon Vineyards; Michael Colello, president/CEO, Frontenac Crystal Springs; and Ronald Colon, quality control manager, Upstate Construction Services, Inc.
After introductions we went to the first question: Tell us a little about your organization and your business career. Foster began the conversation explaining that there has been a zoo in Watertown since 1920. It started off much like a large number of zoos in the United States?with a park and a belief that the community should have a zoo in the park. The Watertown Zoo, located at Thompson Park, went through the same process as most zoos built in that time period. Zoos were built so that people could see the animals and there was no little or no concern about the health and welfare of those animals.
Zoos in the 70’s and 80’s
As societys interest, perception, and understanding of the natural world shifted, the direction of zoos shifted as well. In the 70s and 80s, many zoos in the United States were working hard, not only to place animals in more natural environments, but also finding the resources to get it done. Fast forward to the 1990s and the New York State Zoo had changed. Unlike many zoos in New York and throughout the United States, at the Watertown Zoo you will only find animals native to the area? Specifically those that were living in the environment when Christopher Columbus landed in 1492 and those that are living here today. We use the animals in the New York State Zoo to tell stories?stories about the environment, conservation and the wonders of the animal world, Foster said We want people to be able to connect with nature, have a positive relationship with the region, and lead more sustainable lives. That helps educate people about how they can help the animals survive in this region. It also gives the zoo a business niche. Focusing on native animals separates the New York State Zoo from the other zoos.
Financially, it also makes sense. Most of the collection is not impacted by the North Country winters. Zoos housing exotic animals must provide special habitats which significantly increases operating costs. If the New York State Zoo had an exotic collection of animals, Foster explained, it would cost roughly three times as much to run the zoo as it does now.
Foster said that approximately 45,000 people go through the doors each year and another 40,000 people see the animals through their outreach programs. A zoo-mobile takes animals to schools and to many festivals around the region. Foster had always loved working with animals, but decided to shift his educational emphasis from zoology to education with an emphasis on museum studies. After working for several zoos around the country, he applied for the position at the New York State Zoo and became its executive director.
Aikin was next to talk about her work. The Greater Watertown Chamber of Commerce has been around since 1903. The Chamber was very instrumental in getting Camp Drum to the North Country when it was known as Pine Camp. It worked with the Thousand Island Bridge Authority to help tourism in the Thousand Island and the International crossing. They also brought Disney on board to help educate some of our leaders in the area on service.
Aikins stressed that the greatest assets that the Chamber has is its members and the service that the staff and its board can provide to those members. In the last four and a half years, the chamber has grown by 25 percent and presently has 1.000 members. Aikins believes that the Chamber is in the optimal time to grow membership: Ft. Drum is growing, the region is strong, and we have the river that brings tourism in to our area. The Chamber has been able to take advantage of those forces and move forward.