Kent County eyes zoo master plan


County funding covers less than 30 percent of the cost of operating the John Ball Zoo. The rest is raised through admission receipts, tickets for riding the Zipline, concessions, grants, charitable contributions and fund-raising efforts. Courtesy Denise Kozlowski

The Kent County Board of Commissioners will review the John Ball Zoo’s new master plan this week, which has to be updated every 10 years and approved by the county, under the terms of the county’s lease contract with the nonprofit corporation that now runs the zoo.

Kent County still owns all the real estate and facilities occupied by John Ball Zoo and still provides a little more than $2 million each year toward its operating expenses until 2020, under terms of the contract. That funding amounts to only about 28 percent of the annual cost of operating the zoo, according to CEO Kevin O’Neill.

He said the zoo will soon be applying for renewal of accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and hopes that in its application it can report Kent County’s endorsement of the new master plan.

The master plan envisions an enhanced main entrance, more parking, and a new educational facility being built on the grounds for an expanded Zoo School as well as educational programming by the zoo staff.

Zoo School is a project of Grand Rapids Public Schools that offers classes for sixth-graders. The expanded Zoo School is a proposal to add classrooms for seventh- and eighth-graders, too, according to Kent County Commissioner Carol Hennessy.

County commissioners retained the right, in their lease contract with the zoo organization in 2013, to appoint two commissioners to the zoo’s board of directors. Hennessy, who lives in the district, is one; the other is Harold Voorhees.

Another major issue in future plans for the zoo is more parking, which Hennessy says has been “contentious” among some of the people who live near the zoo and don’t want to see existing green space turned into more parking lots.

Hennessy said the master plan also indicates the zoo would become more compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hennessy said, in general, “everyone seems excited about what is going on at the zoo” regarding its ideas and innovations.

O’Neill said the new master plan is “very generic in nature,” and it is reviewed with the county board to ensure John Ball Zoo is consistent with what the county government expects. He said he does not expect that everything proposed in the master plan will become reality.

He said he will meet with executive management of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, which has been talking for two or three years about the possibility of a county millage to support it.

A possible millage is “something we want to explore,” O’Neill told the Business Journal, adding, “we’re not quite there yet.”

Annual funding by Kent County is called a “management fee” and was $2.5 million in 2014. It drops to $2,400,000 this year and drops slightly each year until 2020, when it will be $2 million. The lease contract has an option allowing renewal of the contract twice for 20 years each.

The contract states the “Management Fee shall be reduced to the extent it is replaced by a voter-approved millage that prescribes specific funding for the Zoo.”

O’Neill said the John Ball Zoo raises the other funds needed for operation through admission receipts, tickets for riding the four-story, 300-foot Zipline, concessions, grants, charitable contributions and fund-raising efforts involving the many individuals and organizations that support the zoo.

Costs have gone up lately due to a variety of causes, one of which is the increase in the minimum wage, according to O’Neill. The zoo, which is not open in the winter, employs about 180 seasonal workers when it is open, and while they are not all paid minimum wage, any increase in the minimum wage bumps up all those on the hourly wage scale.

Last year the zoo opened its new tiger exhibit, which included three new tigers and required hiring two new zookeepers. New exhibits and more animals also increase the cost of caring for them and feeding them.

O’Neill said some of the zoo facilities are 40 years old or more and the maintenance on them is expensive — more so than it would be on new facilities. The zoo recently hired two more operations employees to help keep up with facilities maintenance.

Admission fees at the zoo were just increased, from $8.50 to $10 for adults and from $6.50 to $8.50 for children. O’Neill said he believes John Ball Zoo admission rates are lower than other zoos of the same size.

“We don’t recover all our cost at the gate,” said O’Neill. If that were the case, admission would have to be more like $18 per person.

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