Faced with $15 million deferred maintenance, a task force recommended last week ending free entry to the garden and setting a $12 admission fee for adults, $10 for seniors and $6 for children 6 to 15.
The task force also said annual memberships of $100 for families and $50 for individuals should be offered. There would also be ways for some people to get free or reduced admission under the task force’s recommendations.
“I think everybody would prefer for it to be free but it’s a matter of who’s going to pay for it,” said Assistant City Manager Susan Alanis, who noted that two-thirds of the garden’s visitors are from outside of Fort Worth.
To Mayor Betsy Price, the garden is the city’s “last, big free area” and she’s reluctant to see that end. Yet the repairs and funding challenges can’t be met under the current system.
“I expect some type of fee but we’re going to insist we have some free days or some free hours for people who want to come,” Price said.
The city charges an admission fee for two of its most popular facilities, the Fort Worth Zoo and the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. Private management has helped turn the zoo into USA Today’s No. 5 zoo in the country.
Another key recommendation would include turning over management to a nonprofit organization similar to the structure at the zoo.
The neighboring Botanical Research Institute of Texas, which has already taken over education and volunteer programs, is a strong candidate for that role.
Ed Schneider, the institute’s president and executive director, said board members are interested in the idea but they don’t want to give up their autonomy. Schneider has had experience managing two botanic gardens in other parts of the country.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm among the board,” Schneider said. “There’s also a lot of questions. These are issues that will need to be discussed.”
Without an infusion of cash, the maintenance issues will only multiply, said Bob Byers, the Botanic Garden’s director.
Mechanical systems and utilities in many parts of the garden are past their expected life span. The most visible sign is the garden’s glass conservatory that’s been closed because of falling glass panes.
“This $15 million is a symptom — it’s not the problem,” Byers said. “The needs are greater than the funding available.”
There has also long been a desire to get cars out of the garden, which would require switching guests to a shuttle or tram system to get into the heart of the garden. In addition to an admission, charging for parking could limit patrons’ ability to drop in for short visits.
The mayor stressed that no decisions have been made and the city is still in the early discussions about charging an admission.
The Park and Recreation Advisory Board is scheduled to vote on the plan in October. If it approves the plan, the City Council is scheduled to take up the issue on Nov. 6.
“What do we want the garden to be?” Price said. “We have to have some dollars for upkeep we can’t afford right now. That’s part of this fee but the other part is what do you want? An Arboretum-type botanic garden or more of a natural free-flow open garden like we have now.”