ALBION — Patrons checking out Black Pine Animal Sanctuary will have a smoother visit this year with a freshly paved parking lot and walkways in the park, just one of several planned upgrades in its 10th year at its current location.
Black Pine has a come a long way from a somewhat precarious position in 2006 when it moved to its 18-acre home at 1426 W. C.R. 300N, Albion, executive director Lori Gagen said. With nearly 100 animals on site now — including big cats, small cats, bears, wolves, foxes, primates, birds and grazing animals — Black Pine has since significantly bolstered its assets, reduced its liabilities and put itself in a position to continue growing.
The paving project is the first step, but the future could include further developing unused land, purchasing the property that’s currently leased from the county and even buying new ground for future expansions, Gagen said.
“Black Pine is always and forever a work in progress,” Gagen said.
The immediate improvement will be the $75,000 paving project that will put blacktop down on the parking lot and all of the walkways inside the sanctuary. Currently that’s made up of a crushed asphalt aggregate.
The crushed asphalt holds up well, but it’s an uneven surface so it’s potentially a hazard for older people who don’t walk well and it’s a very bumpy ride for anyone who is visiting the park on wheels.
“People with wheelchairs and strollers and wagons will have a much improved experience,” Gagen said.
The Noble County Board of Commissioners, who own the land and lease it to Black Pine for $1, approved the paving project during a meeting earlier this month. The county has to sign off on any physical improvements over $50,000 as part of the lease agreement.
During that meeting, Gagen also brought up the possibility of Black Pine purchasing the land in the future from the county. Although the lease was immensely helpful to allow the sanctuary to move and continue to operate in Albion, owning the land could open doors for Black Pine to receive additional funding, certifications or animal transfers, she said.
Some organizations have express concerns about working with Black Pine because it does not own the grounds, she said.
“There’s something about sustainability and commitment that accrediting organizations and some of the larger foundations who fund this type of work are interested in,” Gagen said. “We’ve invested well over $1 million over the last 10 years here and we kind of owe it, we feel, to our donors and the people making this mission possible to look at all options.”
In the coming years, Gagen said Black Pine wants to look at projects including growing the sanctuary’s footprint and increasing space for animals.
Black Pine was able to take in three new tigers in December, but a few weeks later had to turn away seven more tigers needing refuge because the park currently doesn’t have space for them, she said.
“We’re starting to do some longer term planning about building out the rest of the property we have, potentially buying property and expanding existing habitats, making them larger for the animals we have here,” she said.
Last week, workers from Rosema Construction and MacAllister Machinery, both of Fort Wayne, were digging out some ground to build new underground wolf dens for Black Pine. That will be one new improvement to hopefully improve life for the wolves, who previously were digging holes underneath some cabin-like dog houses instead of going inside the structures, Gagen said.
The contractors were donating their time and labor to the park, which isn’t uncommon for Black Pine. Volunteers continue to contribute around 14,000 hours of work per year, allowing the sanctuary to operate with four full-time and one part-time paid employee.
With lots of volunteers, fund-raising and support from the community, Black Pine has gone from having about $60,000 in assets and $114,000 in liabilities in 2006, to $1.15 million in assets and just $17,500 in liabilities at the end of last year.
Creating that financially stability has been thanks to tons of support from the local community including Noble County government agencies, organizations and residents.
“It’s been really phenomenal. We’ve been very lucky and I think it’s a real testament to small-town, family relationships that everybody can come together to support this. And hopefully they reap the rewards of us being here,” Gagen said.
Commissioners were supportive of continuing to work with Black Pine going forward about discussing a land purchase and helping with future growth.
“Black Pine is a great asset for Noble County,” Commissioner Gary Leatherman said.
“I appreciate what you’re doing. It’s quite an undertaking,” Commissioner Dave Abbott agreed.