Kent County Commissioner Gary Rolls put it succinctly last month when he said Bert Vescolani has done a remarkable job in a very short time as director of the county-owned John Ball Zoo.
And the latest economic figures support the commendation Rolls described to the Business Journal.
Since Vescolani arrived here from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium in March 2005, revenue to the zoo has doubled. The number of those who will have visited the zoo this year will come close to reaching 430,000 — a number that will establish a new all-time attendance record.
Those are some positive advances that any business would like to claim anytime, but especially in the current economy.
Vescolani, though, would humbly say the turnaround has had as much to do with the zoo’s “good bones”— figuratively speaking, of course — and his staff, as with what he has been able to accomplish in the last three-plus years.
“One community planner that I used to work with in Chicago always used to talk about neighborhoods having good bones — a good infrastructure, a good kind of framework. And I think the zoo had a lot of the right things in place when I started, which made it attractive for me,” said Vescolani.
One of those good bones was the zoo’s care staff. Vescolani said he wasn’t concerned about the condition of the animals when he arrived at the zoo because the care staff had done their jobs admirably. But he said the zoo’s business side wasn’t as progressive as it needed to be.
Back then, Vescolani said, there wasn’t a clear understanding of what the zoo’s income potential was, and most of the expenses were kind of lumped together into one budget instead of being broken out into various categories that could show gains or losses.
“The revenues were pretty small at the time,” he said. “In 2005, I think revenues were running a little under $700,000. Expenses were running about $3.5 million. The capital investment wasn’t as significant as I thought it should have been. They were spending only a very small portion of the operating budget on making the zoo a little bit more user-friendly.”
Vescolani was at the Shedd for 17 years, during which time he said he learned the business side of the attraction industry. The aquarium had an annual budget that approached $40 million and there were 300 employees to oversee.
“At the end of the day, it’s about animals and people’s connections to animals. But you cannot have that unless you have enough money to make it happen. So I really concentrated on the business side of it, for the first few years, anyway,” he said.
When the zoo’s fiscal year ends Dec. 31, Vescolani said revenues will total about $1.5 million for 2008 — more than twice the 2005 amount.
“We’ve had a whole lot of growth on the revenue side. Now we’ve also had a whole lot of expense growth. Everyone is operating at a higher level than they had. The food that we feed our animals has gone up in cost, and everything on the commodity side has gone up,” he said.
“But what we’ve been able to do is keep the net — our revenue versus our expenses — at a level that is the same or less than it was when I started. So the amount that we cost the taxpayers is no more than it was in 2005, and yet we put almost $5 million worth of capital into this facility in public and private dollars.”
Vescolani began the turnaround by restructuring the organization and the budget; by adding attractions, many of which are interactive; by tweaking the advertising; by finding more sponsors; by making the zoo easier for customers to get around in; and by improving guest services.
Then, he said, attendance at John Ball Park, which houses the zoo on the corner of Fulton Street and Valley Avenue on the northwest side of Grand Rapids, took off. It unexpectedly became a site for some pretty big events that pumped up the total number of visitors to the park and, in turn, the zoo.
“We had somewhere between 500,000 to 600,000 visitors in the park this summer. That is unbelievable. We had Taste of Grand Rapids for a few days and we had a big Oktoberfest this year and a variety of different things like corporate events and fundraisers. To be very honest with you, that is one thing that I didn’t expect. So we made some investments in the park, as well,” he said.
Vescolani also made some environmental investments at the zoo. All the animal waste is now composted — about 100,000 pounds a year — instead of being sent to a landfill. Changes to the energy system are saving enough power to run almost 10 households for a year, and the zoo uses 3 million fewer gallons of water than in the past.
“We’re not only doing the right thing from the standpoint of the conservation side, but we’re also doing it from a cost-effective perspective. That has allowed us to grow in some other areas where we normally wouldn’t have been able to, and that’s all staff generated. They found these opportunities,” he said.
The zoo employs about 45 people on a year-around, full-time basis. Then in the busier summer months, as many as 150 work there, when all the seasonal and part-time employees are included.
Vescolani ultimately positioned the business as a “highly interactive specialty zoo,” and it seems to have worked. Visitors regularly come from outside Kent County, and this past year, roughly 22,000 school kids came through the turnstiles on field trips, some from as far away as Traverse City and Coldwater — many more than had visited in the past.
“I think we will end the year at just under 430,000. Last year, we hit a record attendance of 419,000. So this year beat last year,” he said.
“All of our colleagues in this community did not see attendance growth for 2008. So we should be very proud of not only having growth, but substantial growth. And we are. We’re very appreciative of that.”