The Grand Rapids Public Museum, above, and John Ball Zoo generate more than $62 million annually in economic impact for Kent County, according to a GVSU study. Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Museum
A recent study of the economic impact of two local institutions shows both greater reach and more significant outcomes for the community than study participants expected.
The study, released Oct. 18, shows more than 60 percent of visitors to Grand Rapids’ John Ball Zoo and the Grand Rapids Public Museum are coming from outside Kent County (526,000 out of 850,000 annual visitors), and 346,000 visitors annually are coming to town for no other reason than to visit the zoo and/or the public museum.
Paul Isely, lead researcher and professor of economics at Grand Valley State University, said when he began the study, he expected to see most of the traffic coming from within the Grand Rapids area. Now, he looks at the data and sees a ripple effect.
“It’s pretty impressive to see that number of people coming here just for those zoo and museum visits. They tend to be stay-overnight visits, not just day visits,” he said. “Just short of 50 percent of what they spend is on food. They spend about $74 per group outside the two venues.”
The other 50 percent of what they spend, he said, is on lodging, gas and other attractions in the area.
Isely said the big number to focus on from this study is $62.2 million. That’s the economic impact represented by ticket sales, staffing and construction at the two venues. The other big number is 776: the number of jobs supported by the presence of the zoo and the museum, and that includes staffing at neighboring businesses.
He also said that based on surveys of visitors to the museum and zoo, he learned those two venues may be the primary reasons visitors come, but they stay for a few days to see all of the other sights Grand Rapids has to offer.
“We see signs of people going to multiple locations,” Isely said. “They mentioned they also had gone to one of the other museums or to Meijer Gardens. Having that breadth of different attractions makes it so you can come here and piece together all these different things to do for a few days of vacation.”
Peter D’Arienzo, CEO of John Ball Zoo, said he is pleased to see so many visitors to the zoo are coming from outside Kent County. He said before they leave the zoo, many tourists want recommendations about other places to visit while they’re in town.
“We direct people to downtown, to the children’s museum, even all the way out to Meijer Gardens,” he said. “We also get asked a lot of questions about where the local breweries are. I often refer guests to Harmony Hall (401 Stocking Ave. NW), The Mitten Brewing Co. (527 Leonard St. NW) and New Holland’s Knickerbocker brewery (417 Bridge St. NW).”
Harmony Hall co-owner Heather Van Dyke-Titus said she sees John Ball Zoo as an “iconic institution” on the West Side.
“As a business owner, it’s fantastic to be in the same neighborhood (as John Ball Zoo). They bring people from all over West Michigan to our area, and that’s great for my business. If the zoo is thriving and growing, then I’m thriving, too.”
D’Arienzo said the biggest takeaway he gleaned from the study is because more than half its attendance is from outside Kent County, the zoo now knows it should redouble its marketing efforts to visitors from outside the region. And, he said, it’s good news for the community, because out-of-county visitors spend more and care less about price increases.
“The farther people travel, the less price-sensitive they are because they consider it a journey. It’s kind of like taking the kids to Disney. When you travel across country, it’s not like you will care about a $1 rise in prices. You’re there to see everything and do everything.”
D’Arienzo said he is thankful the zoo is having a positive effect on the community.
“I hope when people read this, they say that’s great that the zoo is helping the economy, but we’re also a cultural institution and we’re adding to the quality of life. We’re here because we care about the animals and the quality of life in the region.”
Dale Robertson, CEO of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, said the study was important to the museum, as the zoo and the public museum look forward to the results of a millage vote that’s on the Nov. 8 ballot: 0.44 mills spread across 10 years. The millage would go toward expanding programming and exhibits for both the zoo and the museum.
“As we were looking at this millage conversation, we asked, ‘Have we ever sought to verify with an independent source what is the economic impact we generate for the city of Grand Rapids?’ We know that area economic development organizations say cultural institutions are a big part of this community, but we wanted to quantify that.”
He said the study results were “gratifying” and confirmed what he thought the museum’s impact was in a more concrete way.
Robertson said the museum has heard good feedback about its symbiotic relationship with surrounding businesses.
“The relationship with the Holiday Inn across the street is fantastic,” he said. “We have traveling exhibits, and it brings people to stay there. This past summer, we had great attendance, and we know that people walk and visit other places when they’re here.”
Isely said the study confirms a long-held certainty.
“The economic impact study demonstrates John Ball Zoo and the Grand Rapids Public Museum are more than just treasured cultural institutions; they fuel Kent County’s economy.”