FORT WORTH -- Officials say a $5 Cultural District parking fee imposed by the city two years ago has discouraged attendance at museums.
But during spring break, visitors to several of those museums can get a reprieve.
From today through March 18, visitors to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, the Cattle Raisers Museum, the Community Arts Center and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame can park for free at the lot immediately south of the Museum of Science and History.
Patrons will enter the 220-space lot off Harley Avenue, which will be monitored by museum staff. They will need to show a museum ticket or proof of membership to park for free. Once that lot is full, patrons will have to pay to park at one of the other lots. Visitors to other events in the Cultural District will also be sent to pay lots.
"I think what we're going to do is grant some of those individuals who haven't been to the museum lately the opportunity to do so during spring break and see what those museums have to offer while they're out of school," said Councilman Dennis Shingleton, who brought the idea before the City Council along with Councilman Jungus Jordan.
When the city started charging a flat rate of $5 to park at city-owned lots around the Will Rogers Memorial Center in 2010, it also prompted complaints about the impact on surrounding neighborhoods from patrons trying to avoid those fees.
But the nine days of free parking won't change any of the underlying issues.
The city must pay off the debt for the Western Heritage parking garage that was built to expand parking capacity for the Fort Worth Stock Show. The council voted in 2008 to borrow $27.1 million for the garage and pay off the loan with parking revenue.
A vote on a $1.7 million construction contract with Standard Parking Corp. to install automated equipment in city-owned lots around the Will Rogers complex that don't already have the equipment was pulled from the agenda for Tuesday's meeting. But Shingleton expects a vote March 20.
In August, the council held off raising parking rates until fiscal 2013 while it waited for the equipment to be installed. The council allocated $640,000 from the general fund to cover a shortfall in the parking fund.
Once the equipment is in place, city officials say, they'll be able to charge varying rates, possibly including free parking for 30 minutes or an hour for quick visits to the museums.
Bill Bleibdrey, chief administrative officer for the Museum of Science and History, attributes the 20 percent decline in annual memberships over the last two years partly to the cost of parking. The economy and waning excitement over the new building, which opened in 2009, are other reasons, he said.
"There's been a lot of member commentary and former member commentary," Bleibdrey said. "You can connect the dots. But there's no way to be certain how much of that 20 percent is tied to parking."
Cowgirl Hall of Fame officials declined to comment about the parking issues but said that from 2009 to 2011, membership revenue dropped 30 percent, gift shop revenue 14 percent and visitation 20 percent, excluding the free-admission period during the Stock Show.
City officials said waiving the parking fee for spring break will not significantly affect city funds.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698