County Could Raise Zoo Prices

December 28, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Kent County Commissioners are likely to decide this week whether to raise admission prices to John Ball Zoo and set some new rental rates for picnics and other events held at John Ball Park.

Should commissioners approve the hikes on Thursday, the new rates will go into effect on March 1 — when the zoo’s summer prices become operational — and last through the end of Labor Day week, when the zoo returns to the winter-rate schedule.

Under the new price structure, adults would pay $7.50, seniors 62 and older $6.50, and children from ages 3 through 13 $5.50. Current admission fees are $6, $4.50 and $4 for adults, seniors and children, respectively. The higher fees represent an increase of 25 percent for an adult admission, 44 percent for a senior’s entry, and 37.5 percent for a child’s ticket.

Zoo Director Bert Vescolani favors raising admission prices, saying without the increases, the zoo would have a $250,000 budget deficit next year. Vescolani also said it costs the county $12,000 a day to operate the zoo, and admissions income accounts for more than 70 percent of the zoo’s total revenue.

Vescolani said the average admission price for nine other local attractions is $8.40 for adults, $7.12 for seniors and $5.50 for children, based on a comparison done last April. He also noted that more than half of the zoo’s visitors have been admitted for free over the past five years. He said that last year the zoo had more than 400,000 visitors, and at least 200,000 entered free of charge.

“All the alternatives are bad,” said Commissioner Sandi Frost Parrish, who sits on the zoo’s advisory board.

Parrish said the choices are to make more cuts to the zoo’s budget, raise taxes or raise admission fees. Raising admission prices, she said, was more acceptable than cutting the budget and raising taxes. Parrish said the new rates would still be less expensive than most other attractions and less than the cost of getting into Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, which charges adults $11.95, seniors $10.95, and children $9.95 for admission.

Commissioner Harold Voorhees said because so many zoo visitors are let in for free each year, adjustments have to be made to the admission prices.

“I think it’s a great investment,” he said of the increases.

Commissioner Art Tanis said increases are necessary, but he was concerned about the size of the proposed hikes. Commissioner James Vaughn indicated the county needed to market the zoo more often to increase traffic to it, as drawing more visitors would help keep admission prices down.

“I think we’re at a fundamental juncture of how we pay for this cultural venture,” said Commissioner Carol Hennessy.

Hennessy said she was disturbed by a recent trend at the zoo that has featured admission increases and budget cuts.

“I think we need to take a broader approach,” she said.

If commissioners approve the increases, the zoo’s annual family membership fee would increase from $55 to $62. New rates would also go into effect for outings held in the park’s Hilltop Pavilion, Pond Pavilion and Picnic Acre.

The zoo’s winter fees would be $3.50 for adults and seniors, $3 for children. Those prices run from the Monday after Labor Day through the Friday after Mother’s Day.

The county’s finance committee approved the admission increases.

The 2008 budget for the zoo, its programs and the park is $4.37 million, up by 3.5 percent from last year.

Is The Price Right?

GRAND RAPIDS — Members of the John Ball Zoo Advisory Board told the county that the proposed increase in admission prices are on par with other local attractions. The county board will vote on the increase this week.

Here is how the new zoo admission fees would stack up with other local attractions:





Celebration Cinema North  




Celebration Cinema Woodland




Fredrik Meijer Gardens  




Gerald R. Ford Museum  




Grand Rapids Art Museum  




Grand Rapids Public Museum 




John Ball Zoo   




Ticket prices for West Michigan Whitecaps games range from $5 to $10, and prices for Grand Rapids Griffins games range from $5 to $25.

Note: Rates for John Ball Zoo are proposed fees, and prices for Celebration Cinema North are evening rates.

Source: Grand Rapids Business Journal research, December 2007  

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