DULUTH – Lake Superior Zoo CEO Erik Simonson has taken a new job after many zoo employees were cut due to statewide coronavirus-prompted closures.
“Without revenue coming in we had to scale back to just very essential employees there. A number of folks were laid off, including myself,” he said.
Simonson, also a DFL state senator representing Duluth, started his new role as executive director of continuing education and customized training for Lake Superior College on Wednesday. The timing of the job change was “accelerated” by the COVID-19 crisis, he said.
The zoo remains closed through May 1. Lynn Habhegger, the zoo’s director of business operations, was named acting CEO.
“During this unprecedented time, many businesses and organizations are taking extreme cost-savings measures in order to stay financially stable,” the Lake Superior Zoo said in a statement. “We are grateful for Erik’s leadership in the past two and a half years and appreciate everything he has done for the Lake Superior Zoological Society.”
The nonprofit that operates the city-owned zoo didn’t elaborate on long-term plans for its top role, but Simonson said that will probably depend on how quickly traffic bounces back when things return to normal.
“Every zoo in the country is facing the same issue,” he said. “On the positive side, construction projects will continue, and when it does reopen to the public, there will be new things to see,” such as an improved bear exhibit.
The 97-year-old zoo receives $510,000 in tourism tax support from the city and $150,000 from the state. Its 2018 expenses were roughly $1.5 million, according to a city report.
Simonson, 51, was hired as the zoo’s CEO and executive director in 2017 after he retired from the Duluth Fire Department as assistant chief. He spent 27 years with the department and is a graduate of and former instructor at Lake Superior College.
In his new role, Simonson leads a department that “provides timely and affordable workforce training for regional employers, ranging from mine safety to firefighting to leadership courses,” the college said.
Simonson sponsored a measure this session to bring nearly $1 million in bonding money to the college to help build a new manufacturing center on campus. He said his job is not dependent on state funding and that for any potential conflicts of interests, “We won’t get into a position where there’s a perceived problem.”