Arts & Entertainment, Government, and Travel & Tourism

Zoo management change could come next year

New entity may need operating budget of $6.5 million.

March 15, 2013
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Zoo management change could come next year
Despite increases in attendance and revenue, the John Ball Zoo continues to lose money. County officials are looking at a new management structure for the facility, which is becoming a major player in the local hospitality industry.

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Under the direction of Kent County and the John Ball Zoological Society, John Ball Zoo has become a player in the county’s hospitality industry in recent years.

Back in 2003, the zoo, situated on the city’s west side at Fulton Street and Valley Avenue, was largely seen as a local attraction. That year, attendance was 262,271 and operating revenues totaled $715,640. By 2009, attendance had grown to 424,771 and operating revenue reached $1.6 million.

But despite the attendance and income growth, operating expenses left the zoo in a similar deficit each year. For instance, the deficit was $2.7 million in 2003. In 2009, which marked the third consecutive year attendance topped 400,000, the zoo had a shortfall of $2.5 million — even though revenue had more than doubled from 2003.

In those years, and in every year in between, the county covered the red ink — which topped out at nearly $3 million in 2007. From 2003 through 2009, the county invested nearly $22 million in the zoo’s operations, and averaged an investment of $2.6 million from 2004 through 2010.

Then-Kent County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Steensma decided it was time to look at a new management model that would reduce operating costs, save the county tax revenue and make the zoo financially sustainable for future generations.

Several years ago, Steensma created a strategic planning committee to examine what could be done. The county hired Schultz & Williams Inc., a consultant with a background in this type of managerial expertise. Schultz & Williams issued a report that recommended John Ball Zoo be managed by a single nonprofit entity instead of being co-managed by the county and the zoo society.

“It will look like other cultural institutions in Grand Rapids. That’s really the model we’re adapting to,” Steensma said recently of the new managerial plan, mentioning Grand Rapids Art Museum and Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

Under the new structure, the operating budgets of the county and the zoo society will be combined into one spending plan, and a seven-member board will be formed to oversee operations. Steensma said two members each will come from the county and the zoo society, and one each will be chosen from the Steelcase, Frey and Grand Rapids Community foundations.

“We think it will take all of 2013 to make the shift,” she said. “We have a wonderful partner in the zoo society.” The society invested about $6 million into the zoo from 2008 through 2010.

Under the new management form, Steensma said the county would contract with the new nonprofit entity and an interim CEO would be brought aboard to run daily operations until the transition was completed.

Schultz & Williams reported transition costs for this type of change usually run between $1 million to $2 million over a three-year period. The largest share, up to $600,000, is targeted to give the new entity enough working capital for those 36 months.

“In the last few years, we’ve had record-breaking attendance and we must do this work without interrupting that,” said Commissioner Harold Voorhees of the changeover.

Once the new management is in place, the consultant projected an annual operating budget of $6.5 million for the nonprofit. The budget forecast was based on yearly attendance of 425,000.

Steensma said the county spends about $2.5 million each year on zoo operations, and that money comes from the general fund and the capital improvements budget. The property, which includes a large and popular park, has a total budget of $4.2 million this year.

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