Since its founding in 1979, Paws Farm Nature Center had been a beloved treasure in the Mt. Laurel community.
On Jan. 6, 2020, Discovery Museum, the township’s vendor, publicly announced it would close Paws’ doors and not continue to operate the facility. Discovery Museum operated under a three-year contract but breached this contract six months into its renewal. Mt. Laurel officials became aware of this potential breach in December 2019 and scrambled to find a suitable vendor replacement.
Discovery Museum left a crew to care for the 180 animals on site for an extra month, ensuring the concern and care for those animals was met immediately. The township worked with nature centers, zoos and other sanctuaries to find parties interested in operating the farm and, in the alternative, to provide homes for the animals if a vendor could not be found.
The township continued its search for a suitable replacement. A proposal deadline of Feb. 20, 2020, was established for potential operators to present plans to operate the facility for five years. Sadly, the proposals received were inadequate and failed to demonstrate that applicants would provide a sustainable long-term vision for Paws. With no viable vendor, all animals were rehoused on or before Feb. 28, 2020, when Discovery Museum ended its support for animal care.
Mt. Laurel created and published a second RFP process, but perhaps due to COVID, vendors were unable to submit proposals that demonstrated the ability to operate Paws and provided little assurance that the township would not face a repeat performance from a vendor not understanding the significant efforts and finances necessary to successfully operate the nature center and care for the animals.
“This has been truly frustrating as we build up hope each time that a vendor can present a viable plan and in the end we are left disappointed. We understand that this is an enormous venture requiring significant business planning and extreme details toward animal care. The RFPs have created a step-by-step outline, but of course, the devil is in the details,” explained Deputy Mayor Kareem Pritchett. “When we dig deep, the proposals come up short and lack the financial wherewithal and animal-care standards that are necessary for a sustainable product.”
Last September, Mt. Laurel amended the RFP proposal process for a third time. Notice was issued through newspapers and social media inviting businesses to submit proposals. An independent review committee was established, comprising individuals with experience in animal care and significant business acumen. Each separately evaluated the proposals and submitted scores: To occupy the space that was Paws Farm, proposals would need to be clear on plans for animal care, funding, budgeting for the long term, and employee and operational management. Township officials did not conduct these evaluations so there would be fresh, independent eyes reviewing the submissions.
This independent committee thoroughly reviewed the received proposals. On a scale that measured animal safety and care, financial capabilities, employee and business management, and knowledge of New Jersey rules and regulations, the proposals received underwhelming scores in several of these categories, according to the township.
On a 100-point scale, Mt. Laurel sought a score of 85 or greater but would have reconsidered an application that scored at least 70 points. One proposal received a score of 17; the second vendor received an average score of 49. These proposals were not deemed appropriate to proceed with a recommendation to the governing body to award the project.
“Obviously, this is not the outcome anyone had hoped for but the township doesn’t want to create a false hope that the facility can reopen and successfully operate under these insufficient financing, staffing and animal plans,” explained Councilwoman Fozia Janjua.
Paws Farm holds a special significance for many residents. The township recognizes that the property is bound by Green Acres restrictions and has the historically significant Darnell family homestead as its centerpiece. The property will never will be used for commercial purposes.
“Any rumor that is floating around on social media that insists this site will be used for anything other than a mission with recreation and historic preservation is completely wrong and would violate the township’s obligations under New Jersey laws and the property’s deed restricted protections,” said Mayor Stephen Steglik. “This isn’t going to be anything other than a township recreation and historical site: It won’t become a strip mall or a housing development.”
Mt. Laurel Township recognizes that the COVID pandemic has not been kind to Paws’ RFP process. With social distancing and cases rising in Burlington County, potential vendors are limited in developing financial, staffing, and animal plans. It’s hard to find corporate sponsors when some businesses are simply trying keep their own business alive. These realities greatly impacted the township’s proposal process.
The township surmises that had Paws Farm not closed in January 2020, it most likely would have been not only forced to close but also bankrupt during the ongoing pandemic. In the past, Paws Farm cost an estimated $500,000 to run annually and operated at an annual loss of $100,000.
Steglik, Pritchett and Mt. Laurel Township Council take finding a solution to Paws Farm very seriously. In regard to the next phase of this process, due to the extenuating and persistent health and economic circumstances involving COVID-19, council and the township are reexamining the timeline and structure of the next Paws Farm RFP, with the intent of widening the prospects aimed at ensuring a long-term, financially stable, community-based solution. Council set forth a mission of transparency and communication, and will continue to provide updates in the future.
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