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This article was prepared for the January 16, 2002 edition of U.S.

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Here’s a Business That’s Really Gone to the Dogs

Though Oberon was a good five times his size, it was

Cowboy who was the pursuer. Up the gray crushed stone path he bounded,

streaking past trees and boulders, and rounding corners with blinding

speed. Oberon stayed just ahead, turning his head at the top of the

hill to see if Cowboy was closing the gap. Meanwhile, Talee, oblivious

to the mad chase, broke ice on the hilltop pond and proceeded to go

for a little swim.

Oberon is a giant schnauzer, Cowboy a bison frise, and Talee a black

lab. Ignoring the paw-chilling cold on a cloudless blue day in early

January, the trio were reveling in the off-leash freedom of Rocky

Top Dog Park.

Open since Thanksgiving on Route 27 two miles north of the village

of Kingston, Rocky Top is a place where dogs and their owners can

roam and romp without fear of dangerous traffic, leash laws, or

neighbors

worried about messes on their lawns. The first business venture of

Gretchen Zimmer, who has been a IT professional for nearly 25 years,

it is only the second private dog park in the country. The first,

Dogwood Park, is in Gainesville, Florida. The owner of that pioneering

facility had come up to see Rocky Top the previous weekend. "It

was the first annual dog park conference," quips Zimmer, an

attractive

blonde who laughs about as often as a vigilant watch dog barks.

Beneath her infectious laugh, Zimmer is a tenacious entrepreneur who

found the realization of her dream of opening a dog-related business

a lot more difficult than she ever imagined it would be. A graduate

of Lehigh University, Class of 1978, she has worked as a programmer

for Princeton Plasma Physics for 15 years. Four years ago, as she

was turning 40, she decided she would like to start a business of

her own.

"It’s now or never," Zimmer recalls thinking. The alternative,

she says, was "staring at a computer screen for the rest of my

life." The youngest of seven sisters, she had grown up in Pampa,

in the Texas Panhandle, as a cat person — 13 cats by the time

she was in junior high. "We had a dog, but I ignored him,"

she says. Then she met John Zimmer, a gym teacher in North Brunswick,

and, what’s more, a dog person. "He didn’t have a dog," she

says of the John Zimmer she first knew, "but everywhere we went

he stopped to pet dogs."

Soon the couple married and brought two dogs into their household:

Cooper, a Brittany, and Camas, a yellow labrador retriever. Zimmer

had become a dog person to such a degree that she decided the business

she wanted to start would be a dog business. Dog day care was her

first thought. Then one day she and her husband were out exercising

their dogs in the fenced area around a high school track. A school

administrator kicked them out.

Frustrated that there were no places to release the animals from their

leashes and let them run, Zimmer decided "at that moment"

to start just such a venue. That would be her business. Her husband

is a partner, but only on paper. Rocky Top is her venture, although

she says the man who made her a dog person is "very

supportive."

The stadium incident, and attendant resolve, occurred

in March of 1998, but it took nearly four years of hard work to get

Rocky Top open. Zimmer spent a year searching for the site. It had

to be a good-size area in a town likely to approve zoning for the

unusual facility, and it had to be reasonably priced. Her search led

her to six acres in Little Rocky Hill in South Brunswick. She found

the land in February, 1999, and struggled to come to terms with the

owner until May of the following year.

The cost of the land was $165,000, which she paid with savings and

a home equity loan on her Princeton Junction house. In former lives,

the land had been occupied by Duke’s Tavern and by the Twin Pools

Swim Club. For years it had been neglected and was chock-a-block with

trash — cans, bottles, clothes, and "over 200 tires."

There were also a number of fallen trees, the remains of the tavern,

and parts of two in-ground swimming pools. Zimmer, while continuing

to work at Princeton Plasma Physics, where she still works part time,

did much of the clean-up work herself while, at the same time,

pursuing

permits.

"It’s a compound! A compound for dogs!" Zimmer recalls one

unhappy member of the South Brunswick planning commission exclaiming.

There are houses near the park, but Zimmer says their owners had no

problem with the park, especially considering what it was replacing.

And in the end, she says, the town decided that cleaning up the land

would be a good thing, and that if the park should fail, the space

would be in good shape. It could be used, for instance, for a small

condo development. The dog park got its approvals, and Zimmer set

to work.

Walking through the park, it is easy to think: Cool idea, and so

simple.

It would be easy to start something like this. There is a gravel

parking

lot with space for 32 cars, marked, in part, by dog house size

boulders

in a hue that suggests yellow lab. Inside a double-gated, seven-foot

tall chain link fence in chocolate lab brown, there is a wide path

that meanders up and down hill through tall trees and past rustic

wooden benches. On top of the hill is a man-made pond with a little

waterfall.

In addition to the main park area — 1 1/2 acres — there is

a section for small dogs. Zimmer says older dogs, or even shy dogs,

are equally welcome to use this area, which also has shade and

benches.

But if the little guys want in with the big dogs, that is fine too.

There is also a separate area for puppies, which are banned by many

dog parks.

A well house, a tiny office, and a large screened gazebo completes

Rocky Top’s physical plant. Zimmer now uses the gazebo to interview

prospective dog park members — and their humans. She checks to

see that vaccinations are in order, and evaluates the canines’

socialization.

She plans to host seminars on dog behavior and health in the gazebo

when the interview pace slows.

While the lay-out looks simple enough, it cost Zimmer $200,000 —

not including clean-up costs — to get it in place. She drew on

home equity to finance most of the work, but did obtain a commercial

loan in November through Frank Fischer of Yardville National Bank

using the land as collateral. Fischer, the proud owner of a labrador

retriever, was enthusiastic about the project.

"It’s deceptive," Zimmer says of the park’s infrastructure.

"It’s all underground." Her contractor, Artie Bifulco of A&A

Trucking of South Brunswick, put in pipes to feed water to the pond

and to the four hydrants throughout the park from which humans can

draw their pets a drink. Bifulco got electricity to the site, and

installed the tall, unobtrusive light poles (painted brown and

blending

in with the trees) that make Rocky Top the only lighted, private dog

park in the country. Decorative, black lamps illuminate the parking

lot.

Boulders sit so artfully around the park that Zimmer is asked if they

were brought in. "Oh no," she laughs. "In fact, we had

to take a number of rocks out — and it was expensive!"

Landscaping

was done by Peter Madden of Madden Nurseries on Route 27 in Franklin

Township.

Entry to the park is by electronic key card, using a

system by Main Access in Trenton. Dog owners let themselves in and

out, cutting down on the need for in-site labor. Zimmer, who is on

hand most winter days during prime time — 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday

to Friday and a good part of the week-end — can monitor activity

from her home, determining at any given moment who is in the park,

and how long they stay.

Membership to the park is offered on a monthly basis. In this too,

Zimmer is a trailblazer. The only other private dog park, the one

in Florida, charges on a per-visit basis, and levies fees for humans

as well as for their four-footed companions. Zimmer does not allow

single-visit access, unless the day-visit dog is a guest of a member,

perhaps a relative’s dog in town for a short stay. And then the fee

is charged to the member’s bill. Allowing single use visits, she says,

"would mean I really have to be here all the time." She would

also have to conduct far more interviews, and check far more health

records.

The fee for unlimited use of the park — called Rambunctious Rover

— is $35 a month. Other choices are Suave Sadie, at $22.75 a month

for access on weekends and major holidays, and FiFi, priced at $17.50

for pets who visit only between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Zimmer says she

arrived at her fee structure first by realizing that what she is

selling

is recreation, and then by looking at the amounts area consumers spend

for other types of recreation. "It’s about the same as cable

television,"

she says, "and a little more than Internet."

Twenty-five people signed up for membership before the park opened,

most drawn by an article about the park that appeared in the South

Brunswick Post in May of 2000. "It gave our Internet address

(www.rockytopdogpark.com),"

Zimmer says. Lots of inquiries came to the website, and she took down

everyone’s E-mail address, and then sent opening announcements. By

the time the New Year rolled around, barely a month after the park

opened and in the off-season for dog park romping, membership rolls

were up to 50. Target number of members is 350.

Maye Strauss, owner of Cowboy, the oh-so-social — and speedy —

bison frise, lives in East Windsor, and travels half an hour to bring

Cowboy to Rocky Top. For people without fenced-in yards, the park

is a safe way to exercise their dogs, she says. Bobbie Rogers, owner

of Talee, the ice-swimming lab, has a big yard at her home, which

is near Griggstown, but she comes to Rocky Top nearly every day.

"I

have two acres," she says, "but I don’t like her going into

the woods. Plus, here she has other dogs. She loves people."

As Strauss and Rogers chatted, laughing about their dogs trying to

zoom around the paths with three-foot-long branches in their mouths,

Linda Wisniewski joined the conversation. A manager at a

veterinarian’s

office, she had come to check it out on the recommendation of one

of her patient’s humans. The owner of five dogs, also four cats and

a ferret, all of them handicapped, she was impressed with the park.

Conversation continued as Strauss chuckled over Cowboy’s muddy

underside

— he had been to the groomer just the day before — and

everyone

marveled at Talee’s endurance as the lab waded farther and farther

into the ice-filled pond. Then someone said "Did you hear about

Buddy? Clinton’s dog?"

"Clinton?" Zimmer asked, demonstrating how swiftly recent

history has pulled us past the former president’s exit from Washington

just one year before.

Yes, that Clinton. News had just broken about Buddy, the former first

dog, who had moved from the White House to a big, white house in

Westchester.

Following a repairman out of the house, he had been hit and killed

on the street in front of his new home.

Safety, as Strauss and Rogers indicated, is a prime reason for using

a dog park. But there are others. Zimmer points out that throughout

central New Jersey, leash laws forbid untethered dogs. And, she says,

"some towns don’t allow dogs at all." Or at least ban them

from public streets. "There are signs in some shore towns,"

she says, "`No dogs allowed.’" The pooches, presumably, can

run at home in fenced yards, but are not welcome to venture farther.

Dogs need exercise, and, further, need the company of

their own kind. "They’re pack animals," Zimmer points out.

"What other pack animal has to spend its life away from the

pack?"

Increasingly, dog owners are solicitous about ensuring that their

pets lead satisfying lives, including time for socialization. For

many, access to dog parks is an important part of the equation.

Vicki Kung is the owner of Dogpark.com, "the on-line magazine

for off-leash dogs." The attractive website is a "labor of

love," says Kung, who, along with her husband, owns a Marin

County,

California web design business called KungDesign. She became a dog

owner in 1995, and soon discovered there were six dog parks near her

home. Auggie, a Portuguese water dog, loves the parks so much that

"he starts squeaking, hyperventilating, the minute we take the

right freeway exit." She and her husband love the parks too.

"It’s

not just for dogs, it’s for people too," she says. "It’s a

good social experience for us."

In recent years, dogs have become members of the family, says Kung,

laughing as she adds, "Some of our friends think we’re cruel

because

we don’t let the dog sleep on the bed all night." Dog pampering

no doubt is largely a product of affluence. (It’s a safe bet that

there are no dog parks in Afghanistan.) Other factors at work, says

Kung, are increased telecommuting and the long, long work days

demanded

by Internet start-ups and cutting-edge tech firms. "All of a

sudden,

people are working from home, and they bring the dog inside,"

she says. Or, "they’re working 82-hour days, and the boss lets

them bring the dog for company."

Hooked on her own pet, and thoroughly enjoying spending time with

him in the dog park, Kung decided to build a website listing all of

the dog parks in the country. Little did she know how her project

would evolve. "I had no idea I was entering the dog park

zone,"

Kung says. "I thought there would be 100 parks." It turns

out there are far more.

The site gives detailed descriptions of 564 parks in the United States

(up 22 since December) and 478 in Canada. It also conducts surveys

(67 percent of all dogs receive one to five gifts a year; 6 percent

haul in 15 or more), provides comprehensive dog park news, sells

dog-related

items, including a $30,000 dog and owner tour of Paris, and hosts

an off-leash E-mail group, which Zimmer found helpful in starting

Rocky Top.

"I find myself an advocate and spokesman," says Kung, who

is consulting to the American Automobile Association on dog parks.

"Dog parks are mainstream. They’re a major recreational

movement."

In her view, dogs need the parks to preserve their sanity and

equanimity.

"Most get a little crazy from sitting outside," she says.

"If you put me outside all day, I’d be a little addlepated

myself."

Nearly all of the parks Kung lists are public, but she thinks there

is a niche for private parks like the one Zimmer has just opened in

Little Rocky Hill. "Doggie day care is huge," she says,

"and

it’s not cheap." Five years ago, when she first started looking

for dog day care for her Auggie, she says she could call just a couple

of hours ahead and then bring him right in. "Now, if you don’t

book at least three days a week, forget it," she says.

This willingness to spend money on quality dog care should be a good

thing for private dog parks. "Overall," says Kung, "it’s

probably part of a larger movement. When I started, there were no

public dog parks in the area," says Zimmer. But during the four

years it took her to open Rocky Top, two opened, one in Franklin

Township

and one in Plainsboro.

Amy Cordella, senior park ranger in Plainsboro, says

the park — a one-acre, grassy area with a double-entry fence —

was created at the request of citizens. There were doubts about the

facility when it opened. "A lot of people thought you’d be

slipping

around in poop after a couple of days," she says. But she has

been "amazed by how conscientious people are." The park, which

opened in September, 2000, is "enormously popular," drawing

up to 75 people a day in the summer, its prime season.

"It has been a pleasure," Cordella says of the dog park.

"People

all just love it." And so do the dogs. "I see people drive

up in the car, and the dog is going nuts in the backseat," she

says. "Regulars go at the same time every day."

It would seem that dog parks would be the scene of some down and dirty

dog fights, and even some attacks on humans. But that is not the case.

Cordella says she has heard of no injuries, either to dogs or to

humans,

in the 16 months the Plainsboro dog park has been open. The only

complaints,

she says, have involved young people hanging around and drinking beer.

That behavior was ended with some stern warnings, and all has been

peaceful since.

Zimmer says she was able to get insurance for Rocky Top — through

Sharon Capella of Bordman Perlman in Lawrenceville — and that

the premiums are reasonable. Kung of dogpark.com points out that dogs

are territorial, but that in a dog park they are on neutral ground,

and therefore have nothing to protect. She has not heard of attacks

in dog parks either. Well, actually, she says, she did hear of one.

It wasn’t quite "man bites dog," but was close. "A woman

was abusing her dog," Kung says. The people in her park wasted

no time in reporting her to the humane authorities. "Dog parks

are very self-policing," says Kung.

Zimmer is competing with public parks, which generally are free to

all comers, but she does have some advantages. Her park will have

ample shade in the summer, a feature many dog parks lack. The pond

is a big draw, and, she says, dogs enjoy the visual stimulation of

the varied terrain, boulders, and paths. Rocky Top’s lights are

another

significant plus. Cordella says winter is a slow time at the

Plainsboro

dog park, in part because of the short days, but Rocky Top is now

busiest in the hours after dark, the earliest time most office-bound

dog lovers can get out with their pets.

And central New Jersey is an ideal spot for this type of recreational

facility. "It’s so metropolitan," she says. On a recent visit

to her family home in the Texas Panhandle, where her father, now

deceased,

owned a propane business, and most of her six older sisters still

live, she says her husband noted how much less expensive the land

is. She could have gotten six acres for a song. But a dog park would

never go in Pampa. "People just open their back doors, and let

the dogs out," she says.

Here in the land of universal leash laws, membership is climbing at

Rocky Top despite the fact that it opened during the holidays at the

time of the year least conducive to standing around outside. So far

there has been little advertising beside the website. Zimmer says

many of her members signed up after seeing her sign on Route 27.

She is planning to leave her day job by this time next year to devote

all of her time to Rocky Top. Energetic and upbeat, Zimmer nonetheless

incurred some strain in getting her business up and running. Asked

if she has any plans to open more dog parks, she shook her head, and

said "It was just so hard."

Rocky Top Dog Park, 4106 Route 27, Box 35, Kingston

08528. 609-799-5852; fax, 240-368-0210. Home page:

www.rockytopdogpark.com

More for the Dogs

The U.S. 1 Retail Directory, available at princetoninfo.com,

lists several dozen veterinarians, groomers, and animal hospitals.

At least one other service is devoted to walking your dog. Happy Tails

of Mercer, owned by Carol Lini, is a dog day care center. It is an

outgrowth of Lini’s pet sitting business, Whisker Watchers, which

can be reached at 609-530-8663.


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