Zoo may close next year

November 7, 2009
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If anyone is looking for a “poster child” to represent the current fiscal crisis local governments are going through, they don’t have to look any further than the John Ball Zoo.

Located on the northwest side of Grand Rapids at Fulton Street and Valley Avenue, the zoo is planning to close next year for up to five months — from November 2010 through March 2011 — because of budget cuts.

“We haven’t been closed through the winter and we don’t know what that means,” said Bert Vescolani, director of the Kent County-owned zoo, last week.

But what concerns Vescolani — and county officials, too — is the possibility that having the zoo closed for that length of time may negatively affect its funding from an “out of sight, out of mind” perspective, and make it more difficult to draw paying customers to the facility after it reopens.

The planned shutdown would come at a time when the zoo was on a proverbial roll.

The facility smashed attendance records the past two years, reaching nearly 430,000 paid admissions last year. Revenue last year was $1.5 million — more than double what it was in 2005.

Vescolani said the zoo was on pace early this year to set another attendance record until the weather turned rainy in June, after a brilliant April and May. August was bad, too, and October was so wet that both days of the annual two-day Boo at the Zoo event were cancelled for the first time.

“This is a crazy business; it’s so weather dependent,” said Vescolani. “If we didn’t have such bad weather this year, we would have had a record year.”

Vescolani said locking the gates for those five months would result in an automatic decrease of 6 percent in paid admissions. Losing those 25,000-or-so customers might not seem like a lot in the big picture, but Vescolani pointed out that the loss will raise the zoo’s cost-per-visitor equation next year in a dramatic fashion.

“We’ve been cutting, cutting and cutting, and we’re tight. We’re a $4 million budget and we’ve cut $700,000,” he said of the 18 percent reduction for the coming year.

The zoo is heading into 2010 with a budget that totals $3.8 million, down from nearly $4.5 million this year. County commissioners are considering raising admission fees by a dollar across the board — to adults, seniors and children. The increase would go into effect next April. The proposed hikes have motivated the John Ball Zoo Society to raise $100,000 for the facility instead of having the county raise the fees.

“We hope that will help you from having to raise admission fees,” said Brenda Stringer, the society’s executive director, to commissioners last week. “I know you have a lot of burdens on your shoulders and I hope this helps.”

Stringer said first-day pledges totaled $20,450, more than a fifth of the way to the goal, and she added that the zoo pumps $30 million a year into the local economy.

“It’s not recession proof,” said Vescolani of the zoo’s business. “But it’s cheaper than going to a movie or a sporting event.”

Vescolani said some zoos always close for the winter, while some never do. He added that there isn’t a standard operating model zoos can follow. Commissioner Dean Agee, who also chairs the Finance Committee, asked Vescolani to consider reopening the zoo in March instead of April to shorten the closing from five to four months.

“It’s anyone’s guess what March will really be like,” said Vescolani.

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