Milwaukee County Zoo planning $44.6 million in exhibit upgrades

Study estimates zoo had $155.5 million economic impact in 2015

Milwaukee County Zoo
Milwaukee County Zoo

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:13 pm

The Milwaukee County Zoo plans to spend about $44.6 million on exhibit upgrades and construction projects over the next five years, according to an economic impact study completed this summer by a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee economics professor. The study does not say how the projects will be paid for.

Milwaukee County Zoo.
Milwaukee County Zoo

The study, which was commissioned by the zoo to measure its annual economic impact on the four-county Milwaukee metropolitan area, includes a rough outline of planned construction projects through 2021.

Among the projects mentioned were a $9.6 million renovation of the hippo exhibit that will add underwater viewing, a $15.2 million expansion of the elephant exhibit, a $6.9 million upgrade to the rhino exhibit, the addition of an $1.7 million exhibit called “Alaska’s Cold Coast” and $6.5 million worth of improvements to guest entrances and exits that will include expanded retail space.

BizTimes reported in July the Zoo will discontinue its moose and wolf exhibits in the next few years to make room for the elephant exhibit expansion, but the outline included in the study paints a much broader picture of the zoo’s plans.

Over the next five years, the study projected zoo construction projects will have a total economic impact of around $95.77 million on the combined economy of the four-county Milwaukee metropolitan area — which includes Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties — and create more than 900 jobs.

“There is a high probability that due to externalities in attracting new visitors and improving economic conditions, economic impact will be much greater,” wrote the study’s author, Swarnjit Arora.

Arora said his projections were calculated using numbers and estimates given to him by the zoo as well as a modeling system developed by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Overall, the study estimated the zoo’s total direct and indirect economic impact on the Milwaukee metro area was $155.48 million in 2015. That estimate is up 24 percent from 2006 after adjusting for inflation. A similar study completed by the Institute of Survey and Policy Research in 2006 pegged the Zoo’s direct and indirect economic impact on the four-county area at $104.93 million.

Also in that time period, attendance at the zoo rose from 1.3 million in 2006 to 1.38 million in 2015, with the greatest increase among visitors coming from outside the four-county area.

That number increased from 455,738 in 2006 to 618,483 in 2015.

Arora credited the increase to an overall boost in statewide tourism. Several upgrades to the zoo were also completed during that time period totaling $29.8 million. Those renovation and construction projects included the zoo’s Animal Health Center, Conservation Education Center, Macaque Island, Lakeview Place Restaurant, Family Farm, Big Cat Country, Giraffe Experience and Gathering Place.

To measure total economic impact in 2015, spending from the roughly 760,500 zoo visitors who lived in the four-county area, which represented about 55 percent of all visitors, was excluded. The $155.5 million total represents money entering the local economy from the estimated 618,483 people who visited the zoo from outside the Milwaukee area.

“In order to determine the economic impact of the Milwaukee County Zoo, we must look at the visitors who come from outside the area,” Arora notes in the study. “Through this scenario, we eliminate the potential substitution effect. Milwaukee County residents will not impact the economy because whether they spend their money at the zoo, the Milwaukee Public Museum, a Milwaukee Brewers game or the Milwaukee Ballet, their money is still spent within the economy. In contrast, if an Illinois resident chooses to visit the Milwaukee County Zoo instead of the Shedd Aquarium, the money he/she spends at the zoo enters the Milwaukee economy.”

Milwaukee County Zoo representatives declined to comment.

You can read the report in its entirety here: 

Milwaukee County Zoo Economic Impact Study posted by Ben Stanley on Scribd

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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