The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium didn't have to look far to find a new executive director.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium didn't have to look far to find a new executive director.

The zoo announced last Friday that Dale Schmidt had been promoted to the leadership position. Schmidt, the zoo's chief operating officer, had served as interim director since the late June death of Jeff Swanagan.

Connie Woodburn, president of the zoo's board of directors, said the zoo conducted a national search for an executive director to replace Swanagan.

"Being the No. 1 zoo in the country, we wanted to make sure we had the best leader," she said at a press conference.

Woodburn said a list of 12 candidates was put together from the 90 people who expressed interest. Five were identified for interviews, and Schmidt rose to the top of the list.

"As we went through the nationwide search it became clear the best leader was in our own backyard," Woodburn said.

Schmidt, who has been chief operating officer at the zoo for about a year, said he was "honored to be chosen."

"(The zoo) was started with some great lineage and it's an honor to be here," he said.

The 52-year-old Dublin resident -- who added that he is two days younger than the zoo's gorilla matriarch, Colo -- came to the Columbus Zoo after serving as president and CEO of the Oregon Coast Aquarium. His other experience includes tenures at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the Florida Aquarium, the Georgia Aquarium, Busch Gardens and Universal Studios.

"When I originally started my career I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau," Schmidt said, adding that the dream led him to Florida, where he worked with Swanagan at the Florida Aquarium.

Schmidt said he first visited the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 2003 for a conference and was impressed. Now that he's in charge, growth, conservation and education will be high on his to-do list.

"I don't want the zoo to be bigger for bigger sake. I want it to be better," he said. "I want to keep Columbus rightfully where it should be."

Although he has a year under his belt at the Columbus Zoo and a full rsum of experience, Schmidt said there will be a learning curve in his new leadership position. He said he'd rely on a good team put together by his predecessor.

"If there's a piece I'm not good at there will be someone to help me," he said.

A possible hotel, the development of the Africa exhibit and the every day operations are now on Schmidt's plate, but he said the Polar Frontier exhibit, set to open next March, is what he's looking forward to the most.

"Polar Frontier will be a gorgeous exhibit," he said.