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Vision of ‘New Buffalo’ began with zoo’s Fernandes

The “New Buffalo” started with her. Think about it. She arrived 15 years ago and did what few thought possible – lifted our embarrassing relic of a zoo out of the Dark Ages.

In so doing, Donna Fernandes was a signal flare, the first-light glimmer of a new dawn. With each transformational step, she showed a community crippled with self-doubt that we could get things done, solve our problems, be something better than what we were. Our fate needn’t be shaped by the weary maneuvering of visionless bureaucrats and the get-mine motivations of political hacks. We didn’t have to settle for mediocrity.

It’s as if she came with a crystal ball. Said Fernandes, in a 2002 interview: “Rebuilding the zoo will be part of a rejuvenated Buffalo.”

And how.

Saturday’s opening of the $14 million, enlightened Arctic Edge exhibit – which finally gets polar bears out of the equivalent of a backyard pool – was the latest giant step in the zoo’s transformation. The quality of the project was expected. Excellence now is the happy norm, not the startling exception. How times have changed.

Since arriving in 2000, Fernandes has raised the bar for CEOs, chipped away at our communal inferiority complex and – not incidentally – showed that a woman’s touch at the top could be deft yet hefty. With her flowing cotton frocks, sandals, girlishly long hair and just-folks vibe, the 56-year-old comes off like an unreconstructed flower child. But she brought an executive model that was more about delegating than dictating; listening, not lecturing – and refreshingly absent of ego.

“Obviously, I have a lot of ideas,” she said at her first board meeting, “but I don’t want to discount the dreams and aspirations of [anyone else].”

The my-way-or-the-highway days were done.

We have in recent years taken giant steps on many fronts, from the waterfront to downtown revival to regenerating neighborhoods. The movements have largely been grassroots-fed and bottom-up led. But there was also a new breed of enlightened leaders. As with Rep. Brian Higgins’s push on the Outer Harbor, and Rocco Termini’s preservation-friendly downtown development, Fernandes knew what she was doing – and knew how to get it done.

As a state assemblyman, Sam Hoyt saw Fernandes in action.

“She doesn’t slam her fist on the table and scream and yell,” said Hoyt, now on the Erie Canal Harbor board. “She’s smart, nonthreatening and just makes compelling arguments. She launches this ‘charm offensive’ that’s hard to say ‘no’ to.”

Before Fernandes came, the Delaware Park-side zoo was all small cages, iron bars and pathetic pacing predators trapped in a WPA-era purgatory. The national oversight body was about to downgrade it to a roadside attraction. A new-zoo push had crashed on the rocks of Parkside neighborhood protests and non-existent funding.

Fernandes arrived, a doctorate and multiple graduate degrees in hand, after a run at Brooklyn’s gleaming Prospect Park Zoo. She wanted a heavy lift, and this was Sisyphean.

What little had been done was astoundingly inept: The then-new gorilla exhibit (sadly, still with us) was a rock-laden cave – unlike the animals’ natural forest habitat.

Arriving early for her job interview, Fernandes walked around the grounds. Hours later, she bluntly told the board that everything save the hyena exhibit should go.

“The staff was doing the best they could with what they had,” Fernandes told me Thursday, walking through the Arctic Edge exhibit. “But this wasn’t the way zoos looked anymore.”

Looking for a small yet symbolic “win,” she early on debuted a natural-habitat otter exhibit that offered a glimpse of the future. Fernandes recalled how a normally stoic fundraiser sobbed with joyful disbelief, that it had been done in Buffalo.

Yes, we can.

“It was like our model home,” she said. “We had to show people, ‘This is what “wonderful” looks like.’ That helped launch the other [fundraising] campaigns.”

Money was the means to the ends. Fernandes has helped to raise nearly $50 million in public and private funds. She modestly claimed she “couldn’t sell Girl Scout cookies” and credited her board for unearthing money. But she understood the hard- and soft-sell. A few years ago, she pried $3 million from county legislators, off the real threat of losing the polar bears. Two years ago, newborn cub Luna was trotted out to tug heartstrings – and loosen purse strings. Some of those at Thursday’s members-only preview still sported “Save the Bears” T-shirts.

“Luna brought it home,” she acknowledged of the $14 million lift.

When 2005’s red/green budget fiasco corroded cultural funding, Fernandes led by example – voluntarily cutting her salary 20 percent. Walking around the zoo Thursday, she greeted staffers by name and remembered an ex-docent who’d left a decade ago.

Fernandes tossed a scare into the community 10 years ago by bolting for the Fresno Zoo, partly to be close to her husband’s California family. She lasted three months. The final push was a package from a docent in Buffalo, which she opened to find a pair of ruby red slippers. There is no place like home. Especially your adopted one.

“My heart stayed in Buffalo,” she recalled. “I was more excited about the giraffe born at the Buffalo Zoo than the one just born in Fresno. Finally my husband said, ‘You really were happy there. We should go back.’ ”

Good move. Three years after she returned, the landmark Rainforest exhibit opened.

Saturday marked another milestone. What once was extraordinary now is expected – at the zoo, and elsewhere.

It’s the New Buffalo. With every change on the local landscape, our communal inferiority complex takes another beating. Fernandes struck an early blow – and the hits have just kept coming.