PERRY TWP.  Hundreds of visitors attended the grand opening of Stark Parks’ new Joseph J. and Helen M. Sommer Wildlife Conservation Center on June 9. Guests were being bused from parking at the New Life Church on 12th Street to the new center’s parking lot.

Due to limited parking at the Genoa Avenue entrance to Sippo Lake Park-West, shuttles ran visitors back and forth to parking at New Life Church throughout the morning and afternoon. Parking was also available at the Exploration Gateway with a short walk to the new center using a recently paved limestone trail.

Park officials held a short ceremony and ribbon cutting at 10:30 a.m. with remarks from Director Robert Fonte, Joe Sommer and board members. Wesley, the resident possum, helped cut the ribbon.

Marketing Specialist Jared Shive said there were a variety of activities offered for the grand opening including visiting some of the animals housed at the facility.

"We have probably had 400 people in just over an hour come through to see the new center," Shive said. "Visitors can tour the center, visit the shelters outside or take part in our stuffed animal hospital clinic. We have volunteers checking out the kids’ stuffed animals to see if they are healthy. Kids could bring in their own or use one of ours."

Public areas of the building including the lobby, classroom, restrooms and atrium were open for viewing and tours along with live wildlife exhibits and conservation displays. A guided hike was offered from the center to a new bridge connecting the Sippo Lake Trail and Sippo Lake Park.

Features and Facts About the New Center

The 9,400 sq. ft., three million dollar facility is dedicated to conservation and rehabilitation of native wildlife and their habitat through research, education and quality animal care. It includes indoor exam, quarantine and recovery rooms for injured wildlife and outdoor enclosures for waterfowl, mammal, raptor and songbird recovery. The center treats nearly 2,000 animals each year with a 60 percent release rate. The Wildlife ambassadors, animals that cannot be released back into the wild, represent their species at programs and events and will also reside at the center.

Research and office space will house staff and volunteers from the wildlife and natural resources department. Current collaborative projects include wetland monitoring, wildlife and species surveys and land management and use. The center offers a hub for field work and research with local universities for service learning and internships.

Physical building elements also include window frit to help prevent birds from hitting the windows, cisterns for water collection and reuse and bioswales to improve water quality and drainage around the building. A former natural surface hiking trail surrounding the center was converted to limestone for biking and hiking.

"We have a wildlife viewing window so visitors can observe animals being cared for in the care room," Shive said. "The room is for feeding, caring, examining, weighing and measuring injured wildlife. It’s vital to keep the animals calm during those times so we don’t have the room open."

"The animals we are caring for are kept private from the tours because seclusion is important during the healing process and we don’t want to stress the animals out while they are in rehabilitation."

Commitments from the Community

The new center was named after Joseph and Helen Sommer’s because of their lifelong commitment to conservation and natural resources in Stark County and Ohio. Joe worked to establish the Stark County Park District in 1967, served as a park commissioner, county commissioner, and director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. During his time with ONDR, he was instrumental in adding more than 1,600 acres to state nature preserves.

He has been inducted into the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Hall of Fame and the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association Hall of Fame for his service on both the state and local level as an advocate for conservation and preservation of natural resources. Sommer continues to serve on the Board of the Friends of Stark Parks and financially contributed to the Wildlife Conservation Center in honor of his late wife, Helen.

Donations also made other aspects of the building possible including the Teke and Faye Heston Education Classroom and Alan and Lee Dolan Wildlife Viewing Room. A contribution from Dr. Gary Riggs and Wild4Ever will fund a raptor flight enclosure still to be built. A Wall of Friendship located in the lobby recognizes additional donors and partners that made the center a reality.