New Fort Worth Zoo contract would boost subsidy, allow higher ticket prices

FORT WORTH -- A proposed new contract for the Fort Worth Zoo would raise the city subsidy and allow for increases in ticket prices.

The money would help pay operating costs at the zoo, which has had to cut staff in recent years, officials said.

And, Executive Director Michael Fouraker said, "We're going up against other zoos that are getting a lot larger subsidies."

The city turned over control of the zoo in 1991 to the Fort Worth Zoological Association, whose members include an A-list of local charitable and business leaders. The original 20-year contract expires in 2011; the city and the zoological association are trying to sign a new contract this year. A vote on a new 20-year contract is scheduled for today's City Council meeting.

However, Councilman Joel Burns, who represents the area around the zoo, said he will ask that a final vote on the contract be postponed until May 4 to give the public more time to provide input. Neighborhood groups worry that the zoo contract is being rushed through without giving members a chance to see the details.

The proposed contract would raise the city subsidy 73 percent over the next five years, from $5.4 million in 2010 to $9.35 million in fiscal 2015. It would also allow the zoo to raise ticket prices based on inflation, plus an additional $4 over the first five years. During the life of the contract, ticket prices could be raised no more than $16 over inflation.

City Parks Director Richard Zavala said the zoo has room in its current contract to raise prices but hasn't done so.

"They're going to stay within market," he said.

The proposed subsidy increase "is strategic and it makes good business sense," Zavala said. "This is the best public-private partnership that has ever existed in the city."

The zoological association has raised $120 million for capital improvements at the zoo and turned it into a nationally known institution that attracts 800,000 out-of-town visitors a year and funds wildlife research in 20 counties. Mostly recently, the zoo's backers raised $19 million for a new herpetarium dubbed the Museum of Living Art.

Zoo officials have said, though, that it's difficult to get donors to pay for operating expenses such as salaries and routine maintenance.

Meanwhile, neighborhood associations, including those in Mistletoe Heights and Berkeley Place, have been arguing with zoo officials for years about the use of the surrounding parkland. The zoo opened in 1909 and eventually expanded to cover most of the footprint of the old park. There have been heated discussions over the last 15 years about what to do with the soccer fields and other public land adjacent to the zoo.

"We have long-standing concerns related to traffic safety, traffic volume, aesthetics and the potential expansion of zoo boundaries," said Christian Ellis of the Berkeley Place Association.

Burns said the proposed contract goes a long way toward addressing those concerns.

Fouraker and Zavala said the contract wouldn't allow any boundary changes. And the zoo has been working with the Police Department's traffic division to manage the mile-long backups that can occur on the zoo's peak day, Fouraker said.

"The zoo didn't get everything it asked for," he said.