By Kyla King

This article originally appeared in The Grand Rapids Press on June 04, 2004

Extreme rock climbing. Outdoor theater. A water park. A farmers market.

All were ideas suggested by a group that gathered at John Ball Zoo on Thursday to brainstorm about attractions that could replace the zoo if voters this summer approve building a new one in Grand Rapids Township.

The group — consisting of residents, business owners and Grand Rapids and Kent County leaders — met with a New York-based consultant brought in to help develop a plan for the 17-acre county-owned zoo.

“I don’t think you can know right now what the end result is,” said Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces. “But if you wait until the zoo moves out, you’re making a big mistake.”

The anything-goes three-hour session involved 30 people who toured the West Side zoo to come up with ideas.

“We want to take off all our blinders, there are no bad ideas,” Kent told participants.

The group brainstormed on how to build an attraction around the aquarium, which county leaders have said would stay if the zoo were moved. Ideas suggested Thursday included bringing in restaurants, a micro-brewery, a fish market, skate park, and cross country skiing and hiking.

The aquarium plan would confine any new development to the zoo site, and not into the surrounding park — the main concern of neighborhood residents who fought plans to do so.

The proposed $200 million new zoo would sit on what now is a golf course off East Beltline Avenue NE between Leonard and Bradford streets in Grand Rapids Township. The property was purchased by retail magnate Fred Meijer, who has offered to donate the 165-acre site and a $25 million matching grant. The project would feature 85 acres of exhibits.

In August, Kent County residents will be asked to approve a tax increase to pay for the new zoo.

That tax would not exceed 0.55-mill over 25 years, meaning homeowners would pay $27.50 a year per $100,000 of their property’s market value.

Kent said his company will use the suggestions to develop a conceptual plan and make recommendations on what county and city leaders could do in the short- and long-term if the zoo moves.

Some who participated wondered if any of the ideas would be enough to replace the loss of John Ball Zoo.

“I think the zoo leaving is going to be trouble for this part of town,” said Jim Francis, co-owner of Dillenbeck’s Coffeehouse on West Fulton Street, near the zoo.

Kent said he believes that whatever replaces the zoo can be designed to be a regional attraction.

Project for Public Spaces is a New York-based nonprofit organization that assists communities in revitalizing public areas including parks, plazas, civic squares, buildings, transportation and public markets.

The company has worked with the city of Detroit to turn a concrete island into a park, and it has helped the city of Holland with its farmers’ market.

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