BILLINGS – A familiar face in the Billings community, ZooMontana Executive Director Jeff Ewelt is celebrating 10 years on the job.
“It’s been 10 incredible years. It certainly has not been without its challenges, don’t get me wrong, but we’re in an incredible spot right now, we have an incredible team,” Ewelt said Wednesday morning on Montana this Morning.
He took on the role in 2011.
Among the many challenges he faced, Ewelt recalled the zoo was $400,000 in debt when he started.
“Honestly, it was bad. I’ll never forget the first day I started, we lost accreditation the day before I started. And I was bummed because I thought, man, I always wanted to direct an AZA zoo, and so when we lost that accreditation, it was a bummer, to say the least. I don’t know how we got through those early days. We never did close. We did stay open for the entire time, and we just scrambled, and we made it work. We put our heads down and got to work and the rest is history,” Ewelt said.
He worked to rebuild trust with donors, created a strong bond with zoo crew members, and gained public attention by teaming up with local news outlets to create fun, interactive segments.
“We’re fortunate the community rallied behind us when we needed them, and we were able to bring it back, and hopefully, create something the community is proud of,” Ewelt said.
His latest challenge was the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said was concerning when the zoo had to close its gates for several months.
“Once we were able to reopen, despite the fact we lost all of our special events, and that’s about $400,000 in revenue, we were able to make that up just by attendance itself. Right now, on the weekends, we’re seeing 1,500 people a day. It is unbelievable, and so we’re actually coming out of this feeling really, really good,” he said.
As far as his future with ZooMontana, Ewelt said he’s here to stay.
“I love it here. We love Billings, we love Montana. We put some roots down by buying a place over in Nye, and so we absolutely love it. Not going anywhere, don’t worry,” he said.