Finally, the first shovel of dirt was turned—several shovels, really—on Big Bear Alpine Zoo’s new home in lower Moonridge.
Granted, it was all dignitaries doing the digging and the work was purely ceremonial. But for a project that has dragged on for years with more starts and stops than a Los Angeles traffic jam, it was a welcome first step just the same.
Just three days after getting final approval from the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, Big Bear Alpine Zoo’s official groundbreakng took place the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. Real work on the $8.5 million project is expected to begin this month with a winter 2018 completion date. In fact the contract awarded to M.S. Construction Management Group based in Dana Point calls for the zoo to be completed in 547 construction days, or about a year-and-a-half.
“Work will start in the next 15-30 days,” said Reese Troublefield, interim division manager for the Park District which oversees BBAZ. “If everything goes right, like they can work through two winters, it should be done by the end of 2017.”
After 20 years of delays and designs, and a couple previous locations before settling on the current 10.4 acre spot at the corner of Moonridge Rd. and Club View, what’s a few days? The money is in place—most of it, anyway—permits are drawn, and for the next 18 months people will actually be able to see with their own eyes that the dream of a new home for one of Big Bear’s most iconic facilities is finally becoming reality.
Not as big as originally envisioned—initial plans called for a 20 acre facility on the north shore next to Discovery Center—the new zoo will still pack plenty of punch. Plans were drawn by PGAV Destination Consulting—the same folks who designed the mega-Aquarium in Georgia —and the company has been on board through the whole process, tinkering with the blueprints even as the size of the project shrank, still able to incorporate bells and whistles into a six-plus acre park that’s almost triple the size of the current zoo.
Five marquee exhibits are highlights of the new Alpine Zoo, featuring grizzlies, timberwolves, mountain lions, black bears and snow leopards. Also in the design is a snack bar, ticket and gift shop, additional exhibits and administration building.
“Everyone wishes the zoo was larger but most exhibits are three times larger than they are now,” Troublefield said. “Plus PGAV has designed multiuse enclosures that make the habitat even bigger.”
That’s because “creeps” have been designed into exhibits that allow animals to literally encroach on their neighbor’s space. Take the foxes for instance. They’ll be able to wander into the badger exhibit during lockdown and vice-versa. Wolves can spread out into the grizzly exhibit when the bears are away.
“Lots of other exhibits are the same way,” Troublefield said. “It makes the habitat twice as big and provides a changing experience for the animals so every day is not the same.”
M.S. Construction will be building a base facility, still with nice features like the animal support services building and pathway pavers, and other amenities to come as money allows. Like enrichment facilities including an overhead trail system for the big cats which will allow for unique viewing. A stream in the grizzly enclosure to go along with a designed pool. In all there’s six additional enrichment facilities that are hoped to be eventually phased in.
“We’re not talking millions here,” Troublefield said. “The grizzly stream is maybe an additional $100,000, the overhead cat walk $150,000.”
As it is County Supervisors had to authorize a loan of up to $1.5 million to get the Alpine Zoo project moving. “Country administration and the Supervisors agreed to tentative funding to allow us to award the contract,” Troublefield said.
Combined with $4.9 million from the County’s capital improvement fund established for the project, $1 million from the Blanche and Gene Nay Foundation, $500,00 from the Friends of BBAZ, $544,000 from Park District reserves and money from Supervisor discretionary funds pledged last year, the zoo will finally be moving from the leased property it has occupied the past 54 years. A day many of us thought we’d never live to see, one constantly pushed back including a recent two-month delay.
Looking back into the archives for this story, even I’m amazed how many times it appeared the project was happening, only to come to a screeching halt, and I’ve been writing the saga for 20 years. “It’s been a labor of love,” Troublefield said. “You can’t get involved with the zoo without becoming close to the mission and the plight of the animals.” About to get better!