Fort Worth

Why Fort Worth wants to charge admission to its last free attraction

Fort Worth is considering charging an admission to the Botanic Garden.
Fort Worth is considering charging an admission to the Botanic Garden.

Fort Worth opened a zoo in 1909 with a lion, alligator, coyote, peacock, two bear cubs and few rabbits.

More than a century later, the zoo now has more than 540 species that total 7,000 animals. It's undergoing a $100 million expansion. Soon, visitors can feed the giraffes and watch hippos swim from below the water surface.

Among the country's 250 accredited zoos, Fort Worth's consistently ranks among the top five.

In far north Fort Worth, the city's 3,620-acre Nature Center opened up 54 years ago. Today, it's a nationally-recognized wildlife sanctuary, and with more than 20 miles of hiking trails and untapped potential for more, it's one of the largest city-owned nature centers in the nation.

It had its largest crowd ever in March and annually surpasses more than 63,000 visitors.

Among the keys to their success? An admission fee.

"It's critical to the operation of the zoo," said Alexis Wilson, the zoo's communications director.

Marty Leonard, a longtime Nature Center supporter and a founding member of the Friends of the Nature Center, said since a fee was put in place in 2006 "we've done nothing but grow."

Now it's time to decide whether the last free city attraction, the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, needs an admission fee.

The 84-year-old garden, the oldest in the state, needs $15 million in infrastructure work done and millions more to maintain and grow what's there. That money won't come anytime soon from city coffers.

"The garden, for it to achieve its full potential as a world class facility, which it has that potential ... there has to be some additional revenues to begin to take care of what’s needed to be taken care of,” said Park Director Richard Zavala.

"It's creating a responsible business model. In the end, it becomes a better facility, more effectively managed,” he said.

Zavala acknowledges it is a difficult decision, but visitors will immediately see improvements.

"Just like the zoo, over time, there should be a significant difference in what it is today and potentially what it can be," Zavala said. "It's proven at the zoo. It's proven at other gardens."

In March, a task force looking into the future operations of the Botanic Garden learned that by charging a $12 gate fee for adults, $9 for senior citizens and $8 for children, and offering memberships, about $3.7 million could be raised annually.

Meager beginnings

In its meager beginnings, coin donations at the zoo were used to buy animals. In 1939, the now-named nonprofit Fort Worth Zoological Association was founded to raise money to buy even more animals. By 1991, when it became clear the city's budget would not be able to keep up with demands at the zoo, it entered into a management contract with the association to run the attraction. That 20-year contract was renewed in 2010.

"In the beginning, when the Zoo Association took over, average attendance was just over 500,000,” Zavala said. "It’s a lot of people, but it was declining. The infrastructure was declining. The exhibits were not keeping pace.”

That was in 1992, and visitors then were paying $6 to get in, with the exception of Wednesdays, when zoo-goers could get in for half-price. That price break continues today, and other ticket promotions are available, Wilson said. Tickets are $14 for those 13 and older and $10 for children 3 to 12 and senior citizens.

The Botanic Garden is free, but it costs $7 to get into the Japanese Gardens. It is $2 to walk through the conservatory, but that's shuttered because of structural issues.

The Fort Worth Zoological Association has raised more than $200 million, in part from private donations as well as concession sales, to expand the zoo. The group has opened 16 permanent exhibits. Under terms of its contract, those expansions are deeded over to the city. The zoo association owns the animals.

The city pays an annual management fee, today about $10 million, and has sunk money into infrastructure and utility improvements. In the 2018 bond program, the city wants another $1.4 million for the zoo.

The zoo averages 1 million visitors a year and is said to have a $124 million economic impact on the city.

Under terms of the management contract, admission prices can't be raised more than $4 every five years. According to the Fort Worth Zoological Association's latest 990, the IRS tax form for nonprofits, it reported nearly $13.4 million in admissions and merchandise revenues in 2015.

Going to a public-private partnership at the zoo, "has allowed for growth and development and a level of excellence," Wilson said.

Pay to see nature

Rob Denkhaus, manager of the Nature Center, recalls the initial discussions about instituting an admission fee there. He said he didn't think people should have to pay to see nature. But now, Denkhaus said he sees how visitors better value their experience at the Nature Center, and the added dollars have allowed for significant improvements.

It has also improved customer services, he said. Now, visitors are greeted, handed a map of the trails and their questions answered. Nature Center workers know how many people are on the grounds, and it's more secure, Denkhaus said. The number of lost hikers has dropped a lot, he added.

"I've changed my tune," Denkhaus said.

It hasn't hurt numbers, either. In 2007, the first full year an admission was charged, visitors totaled a little more than 33,340 and they've grown steadily since.

Admission discounts

EMD Consulting, which conducted a study of the Botanic Garden, said charging a fee will drive memberships, which in turn drives private philanthropic efforts. They've seen that occur at other gardens.

One of the biggest concerns about an admission fee is that some people won't be able to afford to visit the garden. There can be ways to make sure that doesn't happen, including a possible half-price Wednesday, or other special family pricing days, Zavala said.

“There might be some companies out there who may want to sponsor a free day at the garden,” Zavala said.

About 334,000 people visited the gardens in 2017. The city funds a little more than $3 million of the garden's $5.2 million budget. That funding would continue and mostly go toward capital improvements

A task force recommendation on an admission is expected before July.

Sandra Baker: 817-390-7727, @SandraBakerFWST
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