Board Raises Zoo Admissions

January 14, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Democrats on the Kent County Commission offered two changes to the proposed admission fees to John Ball Zoo recently and both were defeated along party lines.

Commissioner Dick Bulkowski suggested that admission price increases should only apply to out-of-county visitors, which make up roughly half of the zoo’s annual attendance. Commissioner Carol Hennessy agreed and pointed out that property taxes collected from county residents already contribute $3 million annually to the zoo’s budget.

“Residents should pay less than nonresidents,” said Bulkowski.

But the commission, which consists of 14 Republicans and 5 Democrats, beat back his amendment because collecting separate admission prices for residents and nonresidents would create an administrative headache for zoo officials, and charging outsiders more to enter the zoo likely wouldn’t encourage them to visit.

“We should do everything we can to attract them here and not penalize them to come here,” said Commissioner David Morren.

Commissioner Brandon Dillon then suggested that senior citizens should be exempted from the proposed $2 admission increase for those 62 and older.

The commission, though, felt otherwise, because seniors only account for about 2 percent of the zoo’s overall attendance each year, and they were already getting a discount from the adult admission charge.

“I think we have an affordable fee structure and I don’t see the necessity to change it,” said Commissioner Jack Boelema. “I think we have to respect the fee process the zoo has laid out.”

The new admission fees will go into effect May 17, when adults will be charged $7.50, seniors $6.50 and children ages 3-13 $5.50. Those prices are up from $6, $4.50 and $4, respectively. The fees will remain in effect until Sept. 8 when the zoo returns to its winter prices, which will be $3.50 for adults and seniors and $3 for children.

Zoo Director Bert Vescolani said 70 percent of the facility’s total revenue comes from admission charges, and that the increases were needed to cover a $250,000 budget deficit the zoo was facing this year. He also said the zoo gets 400,000 visitors annually and about half of them are admitted for free.

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