City leaders endorsed a longstanding partnership with the zoo Monday by extending an annual $1 lease for the next 40 years.

The lease for city property was held up last week after Councilman Bruce Kilby questioned whether the city shouldn’t be charging more, and if the zoo was doing all it could to keep rates low for local and low-income residents.

Doug Piekarz, the CEO and president of the Akron Zoo, said he would have answered those questions last week had anyone notified him that the lease, which is critical to accessing state funding, would be on the agenda.

So, he came ready this Monday to quantify the zoo’s benefit to the city and its people. “The relationship really supports the zoo and the city,” Piekarz said. The cheap lease was first offered in 1980 to save the zoo from ruin. Since then, the organization that connects "your life to wildlife while inspiring lifelong learning and conservation action” has been “lifting the entire community and all of its residents,” Piekarz said.

Attendance is up 86 percent since 2005, hitting a high-water mark of 416,000 visitors in 2016.

For every $1 spent on the zoo, Akron gets an $8 return in local economic impact, Piekarz said, citing a recent study by Market and Feasibility Analysts of Chicago. From 2011 through 2017, the total economic impact for Akron was calculated at $487 million, which supports 1,000 local jobs, not counting the zoo’s 120 regular staff and another 100 employees hired during peak season.

City government benefits directly by collecting $2.5 million in annual income taxes based on the "zoo’s activity," which includes $20.6 million in payroll from 2011 to 2017.

And there’s the community appreciation days, which offer discounted or free tickets to Summit County and Akron residents, often through partnerships with other community groups. Some 32,000 Akron residents got free admission in the seven Septembers from 2011 through 2017, for a total value of $317,000.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is now free through a partnership struck in 2016 with the Akron NAACP and Urban League. The Summit County Historical Society got the community a similar deal for Presidents Day. Election Days are free, too.

And, through a partnership with nonprofit ArtsNow, there was a 75 percent discount for 11,000 visitors in July who brought proof of government cash or food assistance.

Piekarz reminded council that, along with offering in-school programming, nearly 3,000 Akron Public Schools students get nearly $30,000 in free school supplies (plus free admission) during the annual Backpack at the Zoo.

Finally, Piekarz noted how the zoo's presence has stabilized housing in an economically depressed Edgewood neighborhood.

At-Large Councilwoman Linda Omobien called the zoo a “wonderful jewel in our community.” Piekarz asked for, and received, swift approval of the lease agreement Monday so that he could present the agreement to the state on an application for $500,000 in support to add more exhibits through 2020.

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.