One of the last free spaces in Fort Worth may not be free much longer
It may soon cost to see the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.
That idea has riled up some residents while a task force attempting to fill a $15 million to $17 million hole in the garden’s budget has said charging admission is the best business plan.
Meanwhile, a yearlong review of the garden found its budget is annually about $1.2 million below operating costs.
To fix the problem, a task force has recommended free admission be scrapped in favor of fees and that the garden’s management transfer to a nonprofit under contract similar to the Fort Worth Zoo.
The council will consider the recommendations Nov. 13.
“The task force was trying to to find the right balance between financial sustainable, practicing fiscal conservatism, while at the same time providing accessibility and affordability,” said Sal Espino, task force chairman.
The task force has recommended charging adults $12 and $6 for children between 6 and 15. Those over 65 would pay $10. A yearly family pass would be available for $100 or $8.33 a month.
Those fees would replace the $7 charged for the Japanese Garden and $2 for the conservancy. The fees would generate just under $1 million in fiscal year 2019 and more than $2.3 million in 2020.
But critics call the fees “exorbitant” and worry some Fort Worth residents won’t be able to afford to visit.
“It has been a place of respite for the residents of Fort Worth,” said Kit Jones, a member of a group pushing back against fees. “It was built for the people and by the people and should be open to all the people.”
The Fort Worth Botanic Garden was built 84 years ago as a New Deal works project. It is the last free city-owned destination in Fort Wroth.
For the task force, a fee and nonprofit management is the best solution. Those fees will help fill funding needs now, while giving a philanthropic organization a foundation to raise additional dollars, garden director Bob Byers said.
“When you’re talking to a donor, they want to know what your business plan is, how you’re maintaining and funding,” he said. “When they find out you’re $1.2 million in the hole, they’re not going to be real anxious to give.”
Jones said the city and garden managers should have seen this coming and planned for it.
“Didn’t you know the park would need to be maintained?” she said.
Byers said it’s not that simple.
For years the city, along with the Fort Worth Botanical Society and Fort Worth Garden Club contributed funding and management for different aspects of the garden. That setup made it hard to know exactly what the funding needs were.
About 10 or 15 years ago, the city’s contribution stopped growing, he said.
“Nothing costs what it did 15 years ago,” Byers said, adding that funding from the two other groups helped mask growing needs. “It just got to the point where we couldn’t disguise the garden has a lot of needs.”
Those needs including extensive work at the 30-year-old Rain Forest Conservatory, which remains closed, as well as utility and structural repairs.
At the conservatory, the glass roof is unsafe. In the Japanese Garden, the popular moon bridge is closed. Buildings across the park show their age with cracked foundations and walls, Byers said.
Utilities have also been a struggle. Some of the park’s pools remain empty. A short in an electrical line in January risked fire and the garden has had several gas leaks.
When looking at peer gardens in other cities, those with budgets above $4 million a year, Byers said the task force learned many rely on ticket sales as a consistent revenue source. Most combine those fees with grants, municipal subsidies and donations.
If the fee is approved, Byers said the garden would prioritize needs, likely looking at the conservatory first. Part of the fees will help fund bonds needed to immediately fund improvements.
Karin Kagle, who is also advocating against fees, said other options haven’t been explored.
Bonds, endowments, grants and other alternatives should be sought before applying a public fee, she said.
Byers pointed that most of the people being asked to pay aren’t from Fort Worth.
Nearly 62 percent of those surveyed in 2017 came from outside of Fort Worth. The garden also doesn’t attract a large number of repeat visitors. About 22 percent of local visitors said it wasn’t their first time.
“We have a beautiful facility here, but we can’t add or change things for people to make it exiting to come back,” he said.
Kagle took issue with the survey, noting that it doesn’t specify if groups were interviewed or just individuals. Many out-of-towners, she said, likely come with local friends or family.
A number of options are being considered to make the garden cheaper for some residents.
For those on the SNAP food assistance, the family rate would be $30 a year. Admission would be free to military members and their families from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The task force also recommends providing 4,500 family memberships to area nonprofits that serve low income residents and making others available through the Fort Worth library.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who was originally against fees, said Tuesday she would support charging admission, citing the options for free or reduced entry.
“I think we have to continue to look at it and not have anything set in stone,” Price said of fee rates.