Public Backs New Zoo, 911 System

July 25, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — After a little bit of coaxing, 60 percent of county residents said they supported a new 170-acre zoo and wildlife park next to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. Without the coaxing, 56 percent still said they favored the development that would reportedly cost $166 million.

Those results came from a public opinion survey funded by Kent County and conducted by EPIC-MRA, a Lansing-based research firm. The findings give the county an inkling that residents would ratify a millage request to build the park.

“This was a critical piece for us,” said County Commission Chairman David Morren.

The survey randomly interviewed 406 county residents, along with another 50 each in Grand Rapids Township, where the new park would be located, and in the neighborhood near John Ball Park, where the current zoo is. A slight shocker to the survey was that residents in those districts expressed more support for the park than the general county population did.

“Surprised, I guess,” said Deputy County Administrator Al Vanderberg of the poll results in those two areas. “I didn’t think that we would see greater support in those areas.”

“People in those areas are more informed of the park,” said Morren.

“It confirms our feeling that there is broad-based community support for a wildlife park,” added Gary Milligan, president of the John Ball Zoological Society.

The survey results follow on the heels of an economic impact study that reported a new wildlife park would be worth nearly $37 million annually to local coffers. Of that amount, $21.3 million would originate directly from the park, while $15.5 million would come from indirect spending.

“I think it’s a great opportunity that has been presented to us by Fred Meijer. If we can get the community on board with it, I think we can have a jewel, a wildlife park that would help with economic development of the area and also give us another attraction,” said County Vice Chairman Roger Morgan.

Meijer has donated the acreage for the park, which is now the Grand Rapids Golf Club.

Among the park’s strongest supporters were young men, households with children who attend public schools, residents of northern Kent County, and those who have lived here from 11 to 15 years.

Respondents aged 30 to 35 and 41 to 49 favored the park more than other age groups, and those who identified themselves as Democrats backed the park slightly more than those who said they voted Republican.

As for the coaxing, the survey contained nine arguments for and against the park and the positive reasons for having one boosted the overall results by 4 percent.

The top-rated positive argument was that a new wildlife park would provide a larger and more natural environment for the animals, followed by the argument that an approved millage would end the zoo dispute. Finishing third was that locating the zoo next to the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park would give the area a premier tourist attraction.

“Once they heard the positive reasons for the park, they turned down the negatives,” said Bernie Porn, president of EPIC-MRA.

The opinion poll also showed that residents favored a $32 million countywide 911 central dispatch center by a margin of 67 percent to 26 percent. In addition, 70 percent handed the county a positive rating for the services it provides. Six percent said the county was doing an excellent job, while 64 percent rated the county’s performance as pretty good.

County commissioners will hold a public hearing on the issue on Aug. 11. After a few work sessions and possibly more public hearings, commissioners could vote on whether or not to proceed with a millage for the park on Sept. 11. How much? Right now, it’s 0.5 mills.

“I’m not convinced at all that the board is attempting to lead the public in one way or another,” said Morren in response to a question as to whether there was any potential bias from the county imbedded in the survey.

“We want to make sure, as an elected board, that we are making decisions the way the public wants.”

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