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Kent County and John Ball Zoological Society Release Strategic Plan for John Ball Zoo

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Plan recommends new management model to ensure future success of John Ball Zoo

Kent County and the John Ball Zoological Society has released a strategic plan for the John Ball Zoo. Developed by Philadelphia-based Schultz & Williams in collaboration with representatives from both organizations, the plan was created to help ensure the continued success of the zoo, and to assess the future potential of what Kent County Board Chair Sandi Frost Parrish called a “treasured community asset.”

“The John Ball Zoo has grown dramatically over the past five years and has experienced tremendous success, ” said Parrish. “Like many successful organizations, John Ball Zoo has grown beyond its existing structure, and needs to progress to the next level. We, along with the Zoo Society, believe that transitioning into a single, new management model – one that is sustainable, viable and embraced by the community – will enable the zoo to grow and develop far beyond its current capacity.”

Currently, John Ball Zoo is managed under a public-private partnership between Kent County and the John Ball Zoological Society. The County owns, manages and operates the zoo, but certain functions – membership, marketing, development, concessions and some educational activities – are performed by the Zoo Society.

The report recommends establishing a public-private governance structure that combines the collective resources of both organizations into a single organization. Although the County will maintain ownership of the land, facility and collections, the entire operation will be managed by a private, non-profit organization. According to the report, such a move will result in a more cohesive vision, unified management structure and increased operational effectiveness.

“This transition will allow the zoo to become more entrepreneurial, efficient and responsive to community needs by eliminating the redundancy that occurs with two organizations operating at one facility, ” said Zoo Society President Kyle Irwin. “At the same time, we will retain the public trust with continued County ownership as well as with the institutional history, donor relationships, and community goodwill created by the Zoological Society over the past 60 years.”

The plan was presented to the Kent County Board of Commissioners. As a next step, Parrish indicated that a detailed implementation plan based on the recommendations contained in the report will be developed and brought back to the Board of Commissioners at a later date. One of the key recommendations in the plan is the creation of a community committee charged with defining and initiating the process of building a new governance and operations structure for the zoo.

According to Shultz & Williams, nearly 70 percent of zoos accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association are managed by private, non-profit organizations while remaining in public ownership and receiving financial support from the public sector.

“Over the past decade, the transition to privately managed and publicly owned zoos has been a recurring national trend, with every zoo reporting positive impacts and growth, ” said Schultz & Williams Vice President Rick Biddle. “The shift has created greater philanthropic support, a larger membership base and increased attendance.”

Kent County purchased the John Ball Zoological Garden in 1989 from the City of Grand Rapids. Since that time, the County has offered operational and capital improvement project funding and provides staffing for animal care, maintenance, security and educational programming. The John Ball Zoological Society was established in 1950 as a 501(c)(3) to raise private funds for construction of new exhibits and purchase of animals. Over the last 30 years, the Zoo Society has assumed some operational responsibilities, including food and gift concessions, event management, public relations and group sales.

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