John Ball Zoo may soon get new management


The John Ball Zoo is enjoying a renaissance with more exhibits attracting more visitors over the past few years. Courtesy John Ball Zoo

After operating and maintaining the John Ball Zoo and Park on the northwest side of Grand Rapids for the past 26 years, Kent County recently came close to transferring those duties to the new John Ball Zoo Corp.

But just two days prior to the board’s scheduled Nov. 21 vote on the matter, the county’s Finance Committee pulled two resolutions from its agenda that were related to the transfer. One was the lease and operating agreement and the other dealt with the construction of the zoo’s new Tigers of the Realm exhibit.

The Finance Committee is set to take up both resolutions on Tuesday. If members can come to terms on both matters, the full board could vote as early as Dec.12, the commission’s final meeting date for the year.

The earlier lease and operating agreement had a starting date of Jan. 1.

The lease and operating agreement is for 20 years with two 20-year extensions. The county will retain ownership of the property.

Before the agreement was removed from the agenda, it had the county funding the zoo’s operations with an average of roughly $2 million annually for each year of the contract, starting with $2.5 million in 2014, $2.4 million in 2015, and $2.25 million in 2016.

The zoo’s funding formula also had the county matching contributions that are made to the zoo.

The contract stipulated that John Ball Zoo Corp. will have to keep the zoo open at least 240 days a year and will be responsible for animal care, visitor services, educational programming, marketing and promotions, development, fundraising, property maintenance and staffing.

The new entity will be required to pay all permits, utilities and any taxes that might arise. JBZC will set all fees and prices and keep all revenues. The earlier contract also gave JBZC the authority to apply for a liquor license.

The county has been co-managing the zoo with the John Ball Zoological Society, and will continue to do so until a new operating agreement is reached with JBZC.

Discussions between the county and the zoological society about the zoo’s future began in 2010. A strategic planning committee comprised of county officials, members of the zoological society, and individuals from local philanthropic groups emerged from those talks. That committee recommended that a single, nonprofit entity take over operations.

“It has been a long road,” said Commissioner Sandi Steensma, who as commission chairwoman for two years led the effort for the zoo’s governance change. “It’s very likely that we will have a sustainable model.”

The zoo’s popularity soared and new exhibitions opened while the county and the zoological society operated it. New records were set for zoo attendance for the past three years; nearly 464,000 people came through the turnstiles this year as of early last month.

“What the zoo has become has been a transformation,” said Commissioner Stan Ponstein.

County Assistant Administrator Mary Swanson said once an agreement is ratified, the new entity will create a master plan for the zoo and it will come before commissioners for their review.

“They will be driving the master plan. The process will be similar to what we have in place,” she said. “I imagine there will be a lot of dialogue on how the zoo will be maintained.”

The county bought the zoo and park from the city of Grand Rapids in 1987 for $1.

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