DULUTH — Lake Superior Zoo has promoted its marketing director to CEO to help the 97-year-old Duluth attraction chart a path through the pandemic and beyond.

Haley Cope, who joined the zoo in 2018 and led a rebranding effort last summer, said the role is a "dream come true."

"I'm excited to continue my journey and bring a lot of the ideas I've had to the table," she said Thursday. "The staff around us makes the organization what it is; we have the best animal care staff around."

Cope has a background in tourism, communications and fundraising and has also worked at Duluth's Spirit Mountain ski hill.

She takes over after former CEO Erik Simonson left for an administrative job at Lake Superior College earlier this year while the zoo's doors were shut during the early months of the pandemic. Acting CEO Lynn Habhegger will return to her role as the zoo's director of business operations.

"We have a great leadership team that's helped reposition the zoo over the last couple of years, so it made sense to look internally," said Jonathan Ballmer, president of the Lake Superior Zoological Society's board of directors. "This is an opportunity to connect Haley's marketing background to the zoo's conservation mission. We were blown away with what she was presenting in terms of continued evolution."

The only zoo in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin reopened in June and since then has welcomed crowds during limited Thursday-Sunday hours.

"We've seen attendance increases on those four days compared to 2019," Cope said. "We've had such awesome support not just from Duluthians but tourists as well."

The zoo had 77,604 visitors in 2018, according to its most recent annual report. It had a budget of $1.7 million that year.

The zoo is still on track to open a nature-based preschool this fall and has several new exhibits in the works, including gray wolves, Ballmer said.