Arts & Entertainment, Government, and Travel & Tourism

Zoo operations will officially change hands

County commission ratifies long-term lease with brand-new entity.

December 13, 2013
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Bear Zoo
John Ball Zoo Corp. will oversee daily operations at the facility for at least the next 20 years. Courtesy John Ball Zoo/Heather Wittenmyer

In a few weeks Kent County will no longer operate John Ball Zoo and Park, after doing so for 26 years.

Kent County commissioners ratified a potential 60-year and $120 million lease and operating agreement last week with the new John Ball Zoo Corp. to handle daily operations of both facilities beginning Jan. 1. The decision marked the end of a three-year effort to find a new leadership entity, primarily for the zoo.

“There will be a new nonprofit formed to operate the zoo, and the county will contract with the new entity to operate it on our behalf,” said Commissioner Harold Mast.

“The county will still fund a portion of the operations and have two members on the new nonprofit board. This will open up new avenues for growth and community fundraising,” he added.

Back in 2010, the county put together a strategic planning committee that included members of the John Ball Zoological Society to determine the zoo’s future. 

A year later, management consulting firm Schultz & Williams, of Philadelphia, filed a report that recommended a new public-private governance structure be created for the facility’s operations, as 75 percent of the nation’s zoos already had.

“The timing is right for a shift in governance,” said Rick Biddle, vice president of Schultz & Williams. “What we look to do is create one single nonprofit organization to take responsibility for the zoo.”

At that point in time, attendance at the zoo had risen for five consecutive years and set records under the direction of the director at the time, Bert Vescolani. He, too, was in favor of a structural change. 

“I feel really good about looking at the future, making us more viable for the long term, and doing it in a much more effective and efficient way,” he said then.

When Vescolani made that comment, the county funded operations, managed the zoo and collected the revenues from operations. The zoo society performed the fundraising functions, ran the membership drives, marketed the facility and provided educational opportunities. Many involved felt the zoo actually had two managers.

The new agreement changes that. The county will retain ownership of the zoo and park, which it bought from the city of Grand Rapids for $1 in 1987, and will continue to fund zoo operations with at least $2 million annually for the contract’s duration, which is for an initial 20 years with two 20-year options.

The new John Ball Zoo Corp. will oversee daily operations, collect all revenues and pay all bills. It will also have the authority to request an operational millage for the zoo.

With the approval of the lease and operating agreement, county commissioners also agreed to fund zoo operations, called a management fee in the contract, at $2.5 million for the coming year, $2.4 million in 2015 and $2.25 million in 2016.

Beginning in 2017, the management fee falls to $2 million every year, but the county will also have to provide $500,000 in what is termed matching fees over three years from 2017 through 2019. 

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