The Minnesota Zoo’s new director says conservation programs and reaching out into the community are his top priorities for the Apple Valley zoo.

He also faces the challenge of persuading the Legislature to authorize the money to help shore up the nearly 40-year-old zoo’s infrastructure.

The zoo’s board of directors Wednesday approved the hiring of John Frawley, CEO of a nonprofit San Francisco conservation coalition, as the new director and president. He will start on Feb. 16 and earn an annual salary of $280,000.

Frawley said he plans to form partnerships to support conservation.

“I’m looking into digging into the conservation projects both in Minnesota and worldwide,” he said. “The future of conservation is involving the entire community.”

Frawley, 51, spent 20 years in San Francisco developing a conservation coalition to protect the Bay Area’s watershed district. He is president and CEO of, Northern California’s largest watershed conservation group, which offers nature-based programming and outreach events and encourages public policy efforts. Frawley is credited with fostering creative partnerships and building strong relationships with governmental agencies.

“Partnerships are critical,” he said. “The zoo right now is a top zoo in the country. It reaches almost every county with zoo programming. I’m really impressed with the reach. Obviously, there is a lot more to do.”

Beth Burns, vice president for external relations, said Frawley’s dedication to conservation aligns with the zoo’s goals. “John Frawley is at the lead of that movement in the U.S.,” she said.

By going out into the community, Frawley said, the zoo will find different ways to let people of all demographics enjoy what it has to offer, especially underserved communities., for example, provided free field trips for 195,000 students to learn about conservation.

Frawley will replace Lee Ehmke, who left in August to become director of the Houston Zoo. During Ehmke’s 15-year tenure, the zoo built immersive exhibits and went through budget problems and the deaths of six dolphins.

A healthier zoo

The zoo that Frawley is coming to is on the upswing, Burns said. In 2014, it took a hit from a polar vortex and rainy summer months that cut into attendance. The bad weather coupled with increased costs and a $1.5 million budget deficit led the zoo to ask the Legislature for more money to keep it from closing exhibits. About $1.35 million in deficiency funding later, attendance numbers are looking up.

The zoo is on track to reach its attendance goals, Burns said. Since the start of the fiscal year in July, it has had more than 660,000 visitors. .

“We funded them and Governor [Mark] Dayton signed a bill that moves them forward in a really positive way,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.

Dayton recommended allocating $17.8 million in capital bonding for the “Heart of the Zoo 2” project, which would include repairing the snow monkey exhibit. The exhibit, part of the original 1978 architecture, needs significant repairs, Burns said.

Zoo leaders hope legislators also approve $4 million in asset preservation funds. Burns said the zoo’s infrastructure has aged, with cracks in the walls and floors.

“We know in order to provide a great guest experience and fulfill work as conservation organization, we have to set the stage with a world-class zoo,” Burns said.

The Heart of the Zoo project, part of the zoo’s strategic plan, includes adding a meerkat exhibit by 2017. By 2021, the zoo hopes to open an African savanna exhibit with lions, giraffes, rhinos and zebras.

Before heading to San Francisco, Frawley got his start in Minnesota, attending Red Wing High School and Minnesota State University, Mankato. After graduating, he worked at the Gladys Porter Zoo in south Texas and then spent four years as a zookeeper for the Minnesota Zoo.