Providence, Rhode Island

Roger Williams Park, a 430-acre Victorian jewel in Providence, Rhode Island, attracts nearly two and a half million visitors per year. A capital campaign, initiated in 1987 and focused on a concessions overhaul and new fees, has allowed the parks department to dramatically enhance existing facilities, renovate historic buildings and launch major new exhibits and attractions.

Project Background

Roger Williams Park has been a central feature of Providence for over 100 years. Functioning for generations as a neighborhood park for the entire city, the park’s universal appeal is embodied in its zoo, museum of natural history, planetarium, public greenhouses, carousel entertainment complex, restored Victorian buildings and hundreds of acres of lawns and formal gardens. However, by the early 1980′s, the park was in disrepair, with poorly maintained roads and historic buildings closed or slated for demolition for failure to comply with current firecodes. Park concessions, historically run by family-operated concessionaires without public bidding or competition, generated less than $3,000 a year in income for the park.

A decision was made to rebid all concessions through the city’s open bidding process. The city asked two non-profit organizations — the Zoological Society and the Friends of the Museum — to bid for contracts to run the gate and manage concessions at those facilities (the Victorian Carousel Village, a family-oriented complex that included pony rides, paddle boats and miniature golf, was built in 1989 and established its own “friends” group). In return, these non-profits were allowed to use a portion of the income for their operational costs. Additionally, they agreed that the profits from these operations will be spent only on specific projects which are approved by the parks department and the zoo society or the museum board. In this way, each partner can be confident that the income generated from that facility will stay in the park and will be spent on capital projects important to the park.

Superintendent of Parks Nancy Derrig noted that it was imperative to develop the revenue producing component as an integral part of the facility at the design stage. For instance, zoo concessions were redesigned as part of the total zoo immersion experience and not tacked on afterward. In building the “Plains of Africa” exhibit, which was funded by money raised from the capital campaign, the zoo designed an African Fishing Village complete with thatched roof huts and wetlands as its concession area. New vendors are required to submit photos of their carts and operations and only those which fit into the Victorian nature of the park are permitted. “The public sees only ‘the park’ and they do not differentiate between park administration and private vendors,” said Derrig. “Every aspect of the operation needs to work together to ensure a quality visitor experience.

Funding

The park, zoo, and museum currently generate profits of over $1 million. According to Nancy Derrig, gross revenue from concessions accounts for approximately 50% of the park’s budget with the city providing money for maintenance, personnel, and animal costs, while the museum, zoo and Carousel Village each pay for their own capital expenditures, P.R and marketing efforts, design and construction crews for all exhibits, all publications and, in the case of the zoo and museum, part of education and research. The city’s contribution to the park has risen a bit to match the increased staff and maintenance costs required by the expansion.

The park has aggressively sought project sponsorships, private gifts and grants. This summer the zoo will again host a robotic Dinosaur exhibit, “Spend the Day in a Dinosaur’s World.” In 1994 this exhibit generated an additional $450,000 profit which, when matched with a local foundation grant, funded a $1 million Snow Leopard exhibit.

The park’s tennis courts, Carousel Village complex and banquet hall all pay for themselves through fees. The Carousel Village is projected to throw off $150,000 per year in profits for the park’s general fund once it finishes paying off its debt in 2001.

Impacts

The park has experienced a major renaissance due to the enhancements provided by the campaign. The zoo has been virtually rebuilt, with major renovations to existing buildings, and new exhibits and programs every year funded almost entirely by concessions and entrance fees. A new 6100 square foot education center has just been completed. The zoo has plans for major new permanent exhibits that will be funded by the projected profits from this year’s robotic dinosaur exhibit. The zoo society anticipates 750,000 paying visitors in 1997 — up from 350,000 in 1987.

Built from scratch in 1989, the family-oriented Carousel Village includes boat rides, pony rides, a miniature golf course, and a replica Victorian horse carousel. The Casino, a fully-restored Georgian hall built in 1896, now hosts hundreds of meetings, weddings and banquets each year.

Lessons Learned

Charging admission for park facilities was a radical departure — all park activities had been free since their inception. There was a difficult year or so of adjustment as the park moved from a totally free attraction to one utilizing user fees, however, the parks department made sure the public understood that the fees were dedicated directly to enhancements, putting up signs at new exhibits and issuing press releases to that effect after every new project. “The visitor has made the link,” said Jack Mulvena, zoo society executive director. “They are seeing new exhibits and development, which they find extraordinary, and they feel like they are contributing to it,” he added.

Contacts

Nancy Derrig, Superintendent, Providence Parks Department, 401-785-9450

Jack Mulvena, Executive Director, Rhode Island Zoological Society, 401-785-9450

(Spring 1997)