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Rhino with baby

Denver Zoo uses PPP funds to bring back staff, keep animals fed and healthy

In normal times, the birth of a baby rhino draws large crowds to the zoo it calls home. But when a rare greater one-horned rhino born at the Denver Zoo was ready to make its public debut in April 2020, the zoo was eerily quiet. Not a single visitor was there to celebrate.

That is because, weeks earlier, the COVID-19 pandemic had forced the zoo to close its doors to the public. “We went from 10,000 people visiting one day to zero the next,” recalls Bert Vescolani, the zoo’s CEO. The sudden shutdown translated to substantial revenue loss.

Behind-the-scenes, the zoo’s executive team began the painful process of cutting expenses and staff. “We spent the first week reviewing options on how to survive as long as possible without earned revenue,” says Charlie Wright, CFO.

The team saw their first glimmer of hope when they learned of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that would be administered by the Small Business Administration as part of the CARES Act passed by Congress. The Denver Zoo, which has multiple banking relationships, chose to apply for the program through Commerce Bank.

The zoo felt one of their banker’s dedication to help stood out. “Paige Norton of Commerce consistently had the most timely and helpful information,” Wright says. “You could sense her commitment to getting this done.”

Commerce Bank had started working with the zoo six years earlier when Wright – then relatively new to the zoo -- sought to expand the nonprofit’s banking relationships.

“We can bank with anyone, so we can be selective in choosing partners,” explains Vescolani. “Relationships are important to us. We want to develop true, trusted partnerships with bankers who understand the complexity of our business and provide us with critical information that may help us.”

Commerce Bank made the process to submit the application quick and simple. The zoo had its PPP funds in hand in a timely manner and could begin the process of bringing back 19 furloughed staff members. Its leaders, meanwhile, could turn their attention to strategies for safely caring for the animals and rethinking how it operates in the future.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, Commerce seemed more responsive, committed and understanding of our difficult situation,” Wright adds. “As we went through the PPP application process, our trust in them continued to grow. Although we were nervous, we felt we were in good hands.”

The Denver Zoo is fortunate to have an exceptionally talented professional staff. Not all nonprofits can afford that bench strength and must rely on external relationships for that knowledge. That’s why a bank like Commerce is of particular value to nonprofits, including ours.”
– Bert Vescolani

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