Update: The Township Council voted unanimously in favor of the resolution on Monday evening. Two members of the Volunteers for Paws board spoke at the meeting, thanking the Council for its support.
A resolution with a goal of reopening Paws Farm in Mount Laurel, including hiring a property caretaker, was approved by Township Council on Monday.
The resolution endorses the continuing efforts of the Volunteers for Paws Farm Inc. and extends through the end of 2023 the Township's efforts to find an operator of the now-closed nature center.
Mayor Kareem Pritchett said in a statement on Monday afternoon that he "couldn't be happier" with the efforts of the volunteers the last year in fixing up the Township-owned property on Hainesport Mount Laurel Road.
"Their enthusiasm to lease the property over the last year for the sole purpose of maintaining, repairing and cleaning the mess left by the prior operator demonstrates their love for this site and the mission that Charles and Kate Tweedy first envisioned,” Pritchett said in the statement.
Volunteers have refurbished the 1736 Darnell Homestead, the barn and other buildings and replaced outdated equipment. About $250,000 has been spent — funded by the volunteers and the Tweedys, who founded Paws in 1979 and retired from it in 2004.
The Township ran Paws after their retirement and then contracted with the Garden State Discovery Museum of Cherry Hill to take over. The wildlife preserve and petting zoo was abruptly shut down by the museum in February 2020 when it told the Township it could no longer operate the attraction. The animals were sent to live elsewhere.
"As original founders, my wife Kate and I just could not accept that fate for Paws," Dr. Tweedy said in a Township news release on Monday afternoon. "We got some of the old band back together and now their grown children, to forge a new path for this treasure."
In its resolution, the Township declares that Phase 1 of the reopening process has been complete and now it is entering Phase 2 in partnership with the volunteers.
"During this process, Volunteers for Paws Farm Inc. will hire a caretaker for the property and hold special events on site for fundraising for animal care and operational support," according to the Township. The volunteer organization will pay the caretaker, according to Township Manager Meredith Tomczyk.
The Tweedys and volunteers attended the April 4 Township Council meeting, urging concrete action toward a reopening so the volunteers could persuade potential donors to give money toward a reopening.
"Just comments that, 'Yes, we're dedicated to opening'...that won't hack it when people are writing checks," Dr. Tweedy told Council at the meeting.
Deputy Mayor Stephen Steglik, who has been working with the volunteers, said the missing ingredient is a firm partner that would take over the property. At least one full-time and two part-time employees would be needed to reopen, according to estimates.
"Neither Volunteers for Paws Farm Inc., or the Township, are in the position to run and operate Paws Farm without the assistance of a third partner," Steglik said in a statement on Monday afternoon.
"The Township will maintain the lands, the Volunteer’s board will oversee the mission but we need that third partner capable of handling employees, animal care and daily operations. We will continue to exhaust every opportunity to find the right fit to meet this challenge," Steglik said in the statement.