Fort Worth

You will have to pay to visit the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. But there are free options

This story has been updated to correct a quote.

FORT WORTH — It will soon cost to visit the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, but there are ways to enjoy the space for free.

Facing as much as $17 million in immediate needs and a budget hole of about $1.2 million annually at the garden, the Fort Worth City Council on Tuesday passed a controversial admission structure.

The suggested fees would be $12 for adults and $6 for children between 6 and 15. Those over 65 would pay $10. A yearly family pass, which covers two adults and all the children in the household, would be available for $100.

A last minute amendment directed staff to reassess those fees before they’re implemented July 19, 2019. Current charges for visiting the Japanese Garden and the Rain Forest Conservatory, which is closed because of a lack of funding, would be dropped. Staff will also evaluate allowing Fort Worth school district students in for free.

Councilman Cary Moon was the only no vote.

For those still wanting to see the garden for free or at a reduced cost, a number of options will be available.

About 4,500 family passes will be distributed to local nonprofits that work with low income residents to distribute to families.

The MusePass will allow families to check out passes from the Fort Worth Public Library in a similar way to e-books.

Under the Blue Star program, military members and their families can visit for free between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The Botanic Garden will offer sponsored field trips to all third-grade classes in the Fort Worth school district. Each student will receive a pass to bring their family back on another day. Currently, those on field trips can show up unannounced, potentially creating a problem for garden staff.

Those on the SNAP or WIC assistance programs can visit for $1 per adult. Children will be allowed in at no cost. A family pass will also be available for $30.

The fees are among recommendations from a task force that also determined a nonprofit, similar to the operation of the Fort Worth Zoo, would be better equipped to manage the garden than the city. Details on that have not been finalized and would require additional action by the council.

Admission is one part of a multifaceted funding plan meant to find between $15 million and $17 million for deferred maintenance at the garden and fill the more than $1 million gap in its annual budget, garden director Bob Byers said.

The 30-year-old Rain Forest Conservatory remains closed as the glass roof is structurally unsound. A moon visit, an old favorite of visitors to the Japanese Garden, is also closed in lieu of repairs. Across the park, water features, infrastructures, utilities and amenities all need repairs, Byers said.

“We can’t look the other way like we have for the last 20 years,” he said. “If we do that, we won’t have the garden.”

Mayor Betsy Price, who was originally not in favor of fees, said Tuesday in a statement she hoped the new revenue would lead to innovative programming, additional educational opportunities and improved maintenance for future visitors. She called problems at the garden “systemic.”

“The reality is, to ensure the sustainability of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and effectively maximize the full potential of the garden as a world class attraction, we need a source of revenue,” she said.

Critics of the program, many of whom challenged the fees at recent city council meetings, prefer to see the garden remain free, arguing such fees are too high for residents to afford. The garden is the last free city-owned space.

An online petition against admission fees gained more than 750 signatures. Nearly 30 spoke Tuesday night, mostly against fees.

Mindia Whittier told the council the options available for free or reduced entry required “jumping through hoops” and “putting their poverty on display” by having people present their SNAP card.

“Is that the kind of welcoming environment we want?” she asked.

Charles Dreyfus argued in favor of a few free hours a day for Fort Worth residents while Judy Williams, a retired teacher who goes to the gardens with her granddaughter, worried she wouldn’t be able to afford the entry.

“Why put this on the backs of retirees who survive on our teachers,” Williams said.

Broadening access to the garden was a focus of Councilwoman Ann Zadeh.

In a work session, she suggested providing free entry to students with a Fort Worth school district identification card and making time at the end of the day free to all visitors.

Access options adopted Tuesday can’t be reduced without subsequent council action, and Byers said additional recommendations may be made in the future.

“We can make adjustments to make sure we’re reaching everyone we need to reach,” Byers said.

City staff will also consider marketing plans that include free days. Those will likely be presented to city leaders in the spring.

Critics said options for funding, such as bonds, grants and donations, should have been explored before instituting fees.

City voters in May passed more than $80 million bonds for parks and recreation needs. The Botanic Garden wasn’t considered for those funds, Byers said, because the city wants to avoid using debt to fund deferred maintenance.

The fees would generate just under $1 million in fiscal year 2019 and more than $2.3 million in 2020. That money would be used to show donors the garden has a consistent income. The garden may look to a $10 million bond, funded through the fees, to tackle immediate needs.

Not all of those who spoke were against fees.

Linda Springer, of the Fort Worth Garden Club, told the council the garden where she was married “no longer exists” because it’s too dilapidated.

“The garden can’t be sustained without an increase in revenue,” she said.

The city already 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.

The land would remain city property if turned over to a nonprofit management organization as a public election is required to remove its designation as a park, assistant city manager Susan Alanis said.

An entity has not been identified to run the garden, though the Botanical Research Institute of Texas has shown interest, she said. BRIT, a nonprofit research facility located next to the gardens, took over education and volunteer programs at the garden in 2017. Any decision about future management of the garden would need council approval.

“The city does a number of things well, but running an operation like the garden is very different,” she said.

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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