Zoo Hike in prices necessary

February 19, 2011
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With John Ball Zoo facing falling revenues and higher expenses, Kent County commissioners will decide Thursday whether to raise the zoo's admission price by $1 for adults, children and senior citizens, and by $4 for a family of four.

"We have to have it," said Bert Vescolani, zoo director, of the higher admission fees. "This is really to offset expenses."

The biggest expense hike is a tripling in the cost of meat and other foods the zoo's cats and other large animals eat. Vescolani said the massive increase is coming from his current vendor, which is one of only four businesses nationwide that sell those foods to zoos.

In addition, Vescolani said admission revenue to the zoo last year was $1.33 million, which was down from the $1.5 million the zoo collected in 2008. Roughly 284,000 visitors paid to enter the zoo in 2010, compared to 427,000 in 2008. Vescolani said the increase in admission fees would give the zoo about $200,000 more in annual revenue.

Vescolani told the Business Journal that the zoo has cut its net cost per visitor from over $8 in 2005 to $5.10 last year, a cost reduction of at least 35 percent.

"We've done pretty well over the last five years and we've had two increases. So we haven't seen the price pressure yet," he said, while adding that the market would likely dictate the right admission price.

Vescolani told the county's Finance Committee last week the zoo provided about 40,000 free admissions last year. Kids who are part of a school's free or reduced lunch program qualify for free admission, and local businesses pay entry fees each year for area children. Vescolani added that the zoo has days when admission is just $1. "We try to do as much as we can with that," he said.

County data showed that almost half the zoo's visitors were admitted at no cost or at a reduced ticket price.

Approving the increases would raise the summer entry fee to $8.50 for adults, $6.50 for children, and $7.50 for seniors. All are $1 increases from the current summer admission prices. During the offseason, which runs from the Monday following the Labor Day weekend through May 1, ticket prices would go up by 50 cents, to $5 for adults and seniors, and $4 for children. The summer prices for a family of four would rise from $26 to $30.

"I sometimes think, as a senior, I can pay a higher rate," said Commissioner Dick Vander Molen.

Data released by the county showed that the average admission price for Saginaw Children's Zoo, Binder Park Zoo, the Detroit Zoo and Potter Park Zoo was $10 for adults, $7 for children, $8 for seniors and $33 for families. Another price comparison with attractions in the county revealed the average ticket cost was $8.40 for adults, $4.80 for children, $7.20 for seniors and $27.95 for families.

Vescolani reminded committee members last week that the John Ball Zoological Society raised $100,000 for the zoo last year; that money was used to offset rising expenditures. The zoo's operating budget last year was $3.7 million. It was $4 million in 2009.

The county owns the zoo, having bought it from the city of Grand Rapids in 1989. Finance Committee members recommended that the full county commission adopt the price hikes. But not everyone on the committee welcomed that move.

How the new zoo prices will stack up

Advocates of the proposed fee increases for the John Ball Zoo feel the cost of admission to the zoo will still be in line with other local attractions. The proposed hike would raise admission by $1 for adults, children and seniors during the zoo’s busiest months and by 50 cents during the offseason.

Family Attraction

Adults

 Children

Seniors

Family*

Celebration North Theater

$9.50

$7.00

 $8.00

 $33.00

Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

$12.00

 $6.00**

$9.00

$36.00**

Gerald R. Ford Museum

$7.00

$3.00

$6.00

$20.00

Grand Rapids Art Museum

$8.00

$5.00

$7.00

$26.00

Grand Rapids Children’s Museum

$6.50

$6.50

$6.50

$26.00

Grand Rapids Public Museum

$8.00

$3.00

$7.00

$22.00

Attraction Average

 $8.40

 $4.80

 $7.20

 $27.95

Proposed Zoo Fees (summer)

$8.50

$6.50

$7.50

$30.00

Proposed Zoo Fees (winter)

$5.00

$4.00

$5.00

$17.00

*A family is defined as two adults and two children.

**Has two prices for children and families based on the age of the children. The price shown is for 5-13-year-olds. Prices are lower for children under 5.

Source: Kent County, February 2011

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