Zoo management review moves forward

June 3, 2011
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The plan to reorganize the management of John Ball Zoo took a big step forward recently when $72,000 was allocated to fund the committee that will direct the change.

The John Ball Zoological Society and Kent County each committed $36,000 to what is being labeled a transition committee. The panel will be comprised of county officials and society members who will be charged with offering recommendations on what a new management organization for the zoo should look like and how it should operate. The move is being taken to “assure the continued and long-term success” of the zoo.

The idea to change the current management scheme came about because the zoo is seen as having two managers. One is the county, which owns the attraction, funds operations and hires the management team that is directed by Bert Vescolani. The other is the society. It performs the fundraising function, runs membership drives, markets the facility and provides educational activities.

“We have two of everything now and it’s going to take some money to get to one,” said Sandi Frost Parrish, commission chairwoman. Her remark came after Commissioner Stan Ponstein asked whether taking $36,000 from general operations was a wise move when the budget for next year is roughly $6 million short of being balanced. “According to my crystal ball, that’s not going to change,” he said.

But Parrish said $36,000 was a small investment toward a larger amount of money the zoo is expected to save through the reorganization effort. Commissioners allocated slightly more than $4 million from general operations to the zoo for this fiscal year, up from $3.6 million in 2010 but down from $4.3 million in 2008.

A study commissioned by the county, paid for by the society and done by national consultant Schultz & Williams Inc. recommended that a single nonprofit organization take responsibility for managing the zoo and be similar to the systems that oversee museums. The report said three-quarters of all the nation’s public zoos are governed in that manner. The county would retain ownership of the property and its assets, but the new private management group would handle daily operations.

“It will have much more flexible options than a governmental entity does to deal with the changing tides of the economy. I wouldn’t in any way couch it as an opportunity to take it out of the general fund,” said Parrish. There have been discussions about going before voters with a millage request to fund the zoo’s operations.

Vescolani said the zoo received its highest grade on its satisfaction survey last year when 100 percent of paid visitors said they would return. He also said the attendance this spring was good despite the chilly and wet weather, and that the summer months would account for 60 percent of the year’s paid admissions. The number of visitors this year is expected to rise by 1 percent from 2010.

Last year, 425,643 visited the zoo, about 4,000 fewer than the previous year but the second-highest mark in zoo history. In 2008, attendance topped 427,400. Revenue from last year’s admissions was $1.2 million.

“I think the zoo is capable of hitting 500,000 visitors a year,” said Vescolani, who began his sixth year as director in March. “Last summer’s attendance was down a bit because it was hot,” he said. “The hotter it is, the less time you spend at the zoo.”

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