New Zoo Worth 37M Annually

July 21, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — If Kent County builds a $170 million zoo and wildlife park on 170 acres donated to the project by Fred Meijer, its total economic impact to the area could reach close to $37 million a year. Initially, that figure was reported at $35 million.

Of the revised amount, $21.3 million would directly come from visitors to, operations of, and expenditures at the park. Another $15.5 million would be generated from indirect spending in the county attributed to the park.

“We’re looking at it as additional information. We didn’t have any expectations, so we don’t consider it to be low or high or anything like that. But it is valuable information to have as it goes to the board,” said Al Vanderberg, deputy administrator and controller for Kent County.

The study, done by Economic Research Associates of Los Angeles, reported the wildlife park would create 176 full-time jobs. Related entities would create another 202, bringing the new-job total to 378.

The total payroll that would emerge from those jobs would be $11.5 million, resulting in an average salary of $30,423. The zoo’s payroll would be $4.5 million with an average salary of $25,568 per job. The other 202 jobs would have a total payroll of $7 million and carry an average salary of $34,653.

Construction of the wildlife park would support 1,150 full-time jobs and produce $44 million in payroll. Another 840 jobs would be created from those construction dollars, which would add about $32 million in payroll to the economy while the park is being built.

“The jobs and revenue from the new wildlife park would be a tremendous boost to our local economy,” said Mike DeVries, supervisor of Grand Rapids Township.

The study placed the total economic value of the building project at $216 million. Of that figure, $125 million would be direct and $91 million would be indirect. Cost to construct the park and exhibits has been estimated at $125 million.

Should the project go forward, the park would be built in Grand Rapids Township on the grounds of the Grand Rapids Golf Club next to the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. The study reported that 750,000 people would visit the wildlife park in its first year.

“It’s also encouraging to note that 75 percent of the visitors to the park are expected to come right from Kent County,” said DeVries.

Vanderberg said the economic impact study was one of two reports on the park county commissioners were waiting to receive before making a decision on whether to proceed with the project. The other, a public-opinion research piece, was to be done this week and it may give commissioners insight into whether voters would ratify a tax increase to finance the building of the park.

In late May, Kent County learned that it would cost from $8 million to $9 million to make road improvements near the park and to add infrastructure to the site.

“While the impacts are significant, they may be minimized by the expected improvements typically associated with any large development. In fact, a residential development at the same site would result in more adverse effects on the surrounding area than a wildlife park,” said Gary Voogt, CEO of Moore & Bruggink, which did the development impact study.

At the same time, the county also learned that a developer bought 25 acres on the site from Meijer to put up houses on the property. Still, county commissioner Tom Postmus, who chaired the county task force that looked into the project, said his group concluded that the site would accommodate the development of a wildlife park.

He said the finding shouldn’t be considered as a recommendation for the board to go ahead with the project, and he added that the task force didn’t assess the politics that surround the project or whether a tax increase to fund it would gain voter approval.

Vanderberg said part of the study’s economic return includes increased room nights at area hotels and motels, meaning that the county could possibly capture a higher return on the hotel lodging tax from the wildlife park.

But he added most of the economic impact addressed in the report focused on area businesses. If the park is built and it leads to the creation of new businesses or expanded ones, the county could see some additional tax revenue coming its way.

So the bottom line is the park won’t directly provide a stream of dollars that the county could use to pay for construction costs.

“There are no direct captures that we can plug back into the project as revenue,” said Vanderberg, while adding that commissioners will get the complete report this week.

County commissioners are expected to hold at least one public hearing on the project next month and then possibly vote on whether to go ahead with it in September.           

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