Zoo Will Keep Parking Free
After months of study, Como Park Zoo and Conservatory says it does not intend to implement paid parking anytime soon. The decision reflects calculations that paid parking would drive down attendance and cost the campus more money than parking revenue would produce.
Frequent visitors to the Zoo and Conservatory say that, if the city charged for parking, they would visit less often and spend less when they do, according to Zoo Advisors, a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm.
Those changes in behavior would cut revenue from such sources as voluntary admission donations, food and souvenir purchases, tickets to Como Town amusement rides, and fundraising. In dollars and cents, the expected decrease averaged out to $9.22 per visit.
Overall attendance would fall by at least 11 percent, according to the forecasts. That directly reduces the donations at the door, which contribute one-fifth of the campus’ revenue, says Michelle Furrer, director of the Zoo and Conservatory. The bottom line, she says: Paid parking will not be included in the Zoo and Conservatory’s 2021 budget.
“Some version of paid parking has been a topic in Como Park for many years,” Furrer says. “It was our intent to gather accurate data to inform decisions. The feasibility of this as a revenue source shows it would not be a long-term benefit to the city.”
Survey results drive decision
Zoo Advisors based its projections on surveys last fall of more than 2,800 people. Most were from the community at large, and about a third were members of the support group Como Friends. The rest were pulled from subscribers to District 10’s newsletter, and visitors who rented space at Como Regional Park or were known as frequent visitors.
The survey explored the impact of different hourly or daily fees for paid parking, how paid parking would impact visitors’ attendance, and how paid parking would impact overall spending at the Zoo and Conservatory.
Daily parking fees would be more detrimental than hourly fees, the survey suggests. But charging even $1 an hour would drive down attendance by more than 20 percent during the summer, according to projections. The Zoo and Conservatory currently attracts about 1.9 million visitors a year.
Zoo Advisors calculated that paid parking itself would make money in its first five years, generating nearly $3.6 million after expenses. The flip side, however, is that if survey projections are correct, overall spending and giving at the Zoo and Conservatory would decline by $4.8 million. Doing the math results in an overall decrease in revenue of $1.2 million.
If the city siphoned off the revenue from parking (instead of pouring it directly back into the campus), Zoo and Conservatory operations actually would run a deficit of more than $660,000 over the next five years, according to Zoo Advisors.
Legacy of ‘free’ prevails
The possibility of paid parking at Como is part of a larger feasibility study Saint Paul began in 2019 to investigate the pros and cons of installing paid parking in its regional parks.
Como Friends, which typically raises more than $2 million a year for the Zoo and Conservatory, actively opposed paid parking. With the slogan “free means free,” Friends leadership said charging for parking would compromise the Zoo and Conservatory’s long legacy of free access, in which visitors are admitted regardless of their ability to pay.
The Zoo, which opened in 1897, has never charged admission. The Conservatory, which opened in 1915, has had free admission since 2005. Visitors are encouraged to make voluntary contributions when they enter.
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