Friday, May 30, 2003

Zoo's a bargain, report says

It should consider raising price to gain more revenue

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden should consider raising its admission fees - currently the lowest among area attractions - according to an outside zoo review the Hamilton County commissioners will use to gauge the zoo's need for a levy renewal this fall.

Tim Reed of Middletown helps his daughter, Monique, pet a descented skunk named Cloe Wednesday. Holding Cloe is Mary Ehresman, members youth program coordinator at the Children's Zoo.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
A.T. Hudson & Co.'s report was complimentary of the zoo's efforts to cut costs and increase revenue in the past couple of years, but also suggested $585,669 a year worth of additional savings - mainly by reducing labor costs through increased efficiency.

The county Tax Levy Review Committee will get the A.T. Hudson report at its meeting Monday and use it to recommend to the commissioners by July whether to put the zoo on the November ballot. The zoo is seeking a five-year renewal of a 0.42-mill levy.

The levy raised $6.5 million last year, a third of the zoo's $19.3 million budget. It costs the owner of a $100,000 home $9.80 a year.

The zoo is the top year-round attraction in Hamilton County, according to a recent economic report, and its education and conservation programs put it in the top echelon of zoos nationwide.

It's also a relative bargain, the A.T. Hudson report noted: An adult admission is $11.50 at the zoo, compared to $16 at the Newport Aquarium and $32.99 at Paramount's Kings Island.

"The zoo's admission and membership pricing, in relation to other local attractions, indicate there may be some opportunity to increase revenue," the report said.

As the levy campaign kicks discussion of zoo funding into high gear, that possibility will be "part of the public debate," said Chip Gerhardt, a zoo board member and chairman of the zoo's levy campaign. "We'll have to at least discuss the issue."

Zoo attendance has dropped 14 percent, to 1,144,144, since 1997, largely because people have more choices for how to spend their entertainment dollars, Gerhardt said. The zoo is competing not only with similar attractions such as the aquarium, but also with indoor activities like computer games.

He also blamed the bad economy and the riots in Cincinnati two years ago.

"(The rioting) has caused many people in our region who live outside Cincinnati to question whether they want to come into the city to do things," Gerhardt said.

On the bright side, he said, attendance is higher so far in 2003.

A.T. Hudson found the zoo's spending and salaries in line with other zoos nationwide. It also found that the Cincinnati Zoo receives less tax levy money than the zoos in Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo.

The report should help the zoo convince taxpayers it a good steward of their money, Gerhardt said.

"This report recognizes just how well run the zoo is," he said.

The zoo lost a 1997 levy attempt after coming under criticism for a proposed parking garage and using taxpayers' money in the levy campaign. In 1998, voters passed a smaller levy - the 0.42-mill levy that's now up for renewal.

The A.T. Hudson report did make three recommendations for further improvement:

• Increase workers' productivity with better planning and follow-up by management. An outside consultant could reduce labor costs 20 percent, the report said, but the zoo instead committed to reducing costs 4 percent in the next year by making changes on its own. Estimated savings: $425,000.

• Centralize purchasing in one department to reduce duplication of efforts and get more volume discounts. Estimated savings: $130,000.

• Step up marketing efforts to bring in more education and other group events. Estimated income: $30,669.

"Those are good recommendations, and ones that the zoo will take seriously," Gerhardt said.


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