Days of free parking nearly over at Will Rogers center

FORT WORTH -- On Saturday, an era ends in Fort Worth.

It was a long one, unusual in its beneficence for a major city and perhaps no small factor in the regional appeal of Cowtown's attractions.

But the free parking at Will Rogers Memorial Center is over.

The silver lining is that a new $27 million garage with 1,117 parking spaces is now available to absorb some of the vehicular crush that occurred regularly in the Cultural District as people massed for museums, gun shows and equine competitions.

"Almost every weekend, it's packed," said Kirk Slaughter, director of public facilities and events for the city. "The Cultural District was choking off. There simply wasn't enough parking. In order to make sure we stay on top of our game, we've got to continue to invest in those facilities. This is how we pay for those improvements."

The need to implement parking fees -- $5 for the most part -- may not have been up for debate at City Hall, which has the new Western Heritage parking garage to pay off.

But some institutions, worried about the potential impact on their attendance at least in the short term, are less than cheery at the lack of choice and discussion in the city's plan.

"Our goal is the same as the city's -- to have people come to these world-class venues -- so putting a barrier in people's way seems counterintuitive," said Lori Eklund, chief operations officer of the Amon Carter Museum.

'A kick in the butt'

For the last two weeks, employees of Standard Parking have been handing out brochures alerting people to the coming changes. But there is no way of knowing how many people will be surprised when they arrive at Will Rogers this weekend.

Will Rogers is hosting the Original Fort Worth Gun Show this weekend, an event that easily draws more than 12,000 people and strains the entire Cultural District's traffic system. "How's that for a kick in the butt?" joked Michelle Finucane, who with her husband, Tim, is the owner and promoter of the gun show. "You just have to laugh at the timing of this."

Because parking has been inadequate for several years, the city issued bonds in 2008 to build the Western Heritage parking garage on Montgomery Street, between the Fort Worth Community Arts Center and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

The first debt payment, due next spring, is $1.5 million. The amount the city owes increases every year after that, and it is all but guaranteed that the parking fees will go up, too.

The city insisted that the garage pay for itself, but to make enough money to make those payments, the city had to charge for parking throughout the Will Rogers complex, Slaughter said. Previously the only time people had to pay to park was during the Fort Worth Stock Show.

"The city has a debt service that has to be paid," Slaughter said. "The decision was not entered into lightly. But if the garage doesn't pay for itself, the debt service falls back onto the general fund. That's what we want to avoid."

The city compromised, Slaughter said, on agreeing to charge only $2 to park in the garage for up to 90 minutes with a ticket validated from one of the museums or Z's Cafe in the Community Arts Center.

More than one person has wondered why downtown leaders see free parking as an important enough perk that they offer it on nights and weekends, while the city is going to charge visitors to the Cultural District 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But Slaughter said the city's downtown tax increment financing district is actually paying the owners of the garages and lots to make them free, he said.

Fewer museum visitors?

The Amon Carter Museum, which is free, is particularly worried that the parking changes will negatively affect their visitors' experiences and attendance. The museum only has 46 spots and relies on the Will Rogers lots for most of its visitors, especially during the week.

"We're really anticipating that this is not going to go well for our visitors," Eklund said.

Stacy Fuller, the education director at the Carter, said the museum has tried hard in recent years to broaden its appeal regionally and socioeconomically, for example, by offering family days, senior programs, children's summer programs and translating brochures into Spanish.

"We've worked to eliminate any possible barrier from people coming here, and now we have a barrier placed on the museum and its visitors that we can't do anything about," Fuller said.

The nearby Museum of Science and History has a small lot next to its building, but it is only for Museum School parents. Its visitors will have to pay in one of the city lots or garages.

The leaders of that museum have taken a wait-and-see attitude on whether their visitors will protest to them, accept it quietly or simply not come as often.

"We know there will be a financial impact on the museum, but we are going to try our best to negate those impacts," said Van Romans, president of the museum. "We can be negative about it, but I'm trying to be positive. Our families will still be able to park in the same places they always have, and our employees and volunteers will have parking."

The University of North Texas Health Science Center makes its parking garage on Clifton Street available -- for free -- on nights and weekends but it is likely only to help the Amon Carter or Kimbell Art Museum because of its distance from Will Rogers.

The Kimbell expects the changes to have little to no effect on its operations, said Jessica Brandrup, a spokeswoman for the museum.

The Kimbell has about 50 spaces next to its building and another 300 on its Darnell Street lot, all of which are free but only for museum visitors.

"During the Stock Show and big shows at Will Rogers, we will have a parking attendant in our lots to validate people coming to the Kimbell," Brandrup said.

Finucane, like many others in the area, figure that $5 for parking may elicit some grumbles but be seen as worth it to visit the area. If the parking fees go up every year, though, that attitude may change, she said.

CHRIS VAUGHN, 817-390-7547