Three times since March, the Conservatory at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden closed to the public because a leaking irrigation system flooded the 30-year-old metal and glass structure, itself suffering stress fractures and equipment malfunctions that twice this past winter caused temperatures inside to drop to 38 degrees.
The temperature shouldn’t drop below 50 degrees, to avoid placing the plant and tree collection in danger. Nearby, a 50-year-old greenhouse that houses a world-renowned begonia collection needs to be replaced.
In June, a sinkhole formed behind the stage where the Fort Worth Symphony performs its popular Concerts in the Garden summer series. A 30-inch city sewer line collapsed, but that went unnoticed to concertgoers and other visitors while it was fixed.
And it’s been five years since the large whimsical frog sculptures jumping from the signature water fountain at the garden’s entrance have shot water from their mouths across the pool of water to the delight of guests.
Across the 110-acre city park that opened more than 80 years ago as the first botanic garden in the state, there are all kinds of needs and deferred maintenance issues that consultants recently estimated will take $15 million to fix.
Among possible changes that would directly impact the tens of thousands of garden visitors each year is an entry fee giving access to the entire garden. Entrance to the garden is now free.
Despite the vast list, Bob Byers, the garden’s director, puts his and the garden’s best foot forward, saying it is and will continue to be a great attraction for tourists and residents.
For that, he credits the city’s help as well as the Botanical Society and Fort Worth Garden Club, longtime supporters and operators in the garden, off University Drive next to the Will Rogers Memorial Complex in the city’s Cultural District.
“The visitor has a good experience,” Byers said, but added, “The public has a misconception about the condition of the garden. I want to make clear, the garden is a wonderful asset. But it’s no longer safe to assume the garden will always be here if we don’t look at these concerns.”
Byers’ remarks come as the city’s Parks Department reviews a consultant’s strategic action plan that spells out how a 2010 Master Plan of the Botanic Garden can be set in motion. In March, the City Council approved spending $97,925 on the study, some of that coming from donations. Public hearings have been conducted on the latest report, and it will be presented to the council in September.
“We don’t want to discontinue making progress moving forward,” Byers said. “We’ve made huge progress just by understanding the situation better.”
Richard Zavala, the city’s park director, said this latest report allows his department to take a step back and see what the long-term needs of the garden are and how to go about fulfilling those.
“This brings us more into reality,” Zavala said. “I have more needs than I have resources. This has been able to show us other ways to find resources. We have an obligation to be good stewards of the natural resources entrusted upon us for current and future generations. That includes the Botanic Garden. Good stewardship includes preservation, protection and prudent management.”
The 2010 Master Plan recommends many sweeping changes to the garden, among them eliminating traffic within the park and moving the main entrance from University Drive to Montgomery Street.
The city doesn’t own the land for the proposed new entrance and has made offers to the owners, to no avail.
Sandra Youngblood, the city’s assistant parks director, said one of the key components in the master plan is the new entrance, but not doing that means tweaking other recommendations that were made based on moving the entrance, including improving parking.
“The Master Plan is a solid document and still relative and valid,” Youngblood said.
In the meantime, the master plan has sat dormant for five years in the wake of the recession and lean budget years for the city.
Earlier this year, however, St. Louis-based EMD Consulting Group was hired to put together the strategic action plan, which goes beyond the master plan and addresses the garden’s operations and organization structure, as well as its financial sustainability.
Consultant Rick Daley said Fort Worth “is very generous” in its support of the garden, providing 58 percent of its $4.4 million budget. The remainder comes from admission fees to the Japanese Garden and the Conservatory, facility rentals, a restaurant and gift shop sales, and other private support.
By comparison, Chicago and Denver provide funding for about one-third of their botanic garden operating budgets, he said.
Outside support, through donations, endowments and memberships, is “woefully low,” and that needs to change, Daley said. He recommends shifting from separate entrance fees to the Japanese Garden and the Conservatory to charging one general admission fee, perhaps ranging from $7 and $9 for an adult and less for children. An admission fee could generate $686,649 to $1.3 million, he said.
Many public gardens have admission and parking fees, Daley said. In Fort Worth, getting onto the garden grounds has always been free.
Having no admission fee “handcuffs the garden as the city will always have more pressing needs,” Daley said. “People appreciate what they pay for.”
Byers said if that happens, the earliest an admission fee could be put in place is October 2018, and it will need City Council approval.
Daley also recommends starting systematic fundraising efforts for new capital improvements and restoring greater city support for infrastructure repairs. Financial support for the garden, both public and private, has remained the same for a decade, and an additional $1.5 million is needed just for the day-to-day operations of the garden, he said.
“That’s where the city can step in because no one else will,” Daley said. “There’s an immediate need of $15 million worth of work. It’s a big number. Everything you can think of needs work.”
Create friends group
Moreover, Daley suggests creating a new nonprofit group to focus on membership and development, and transferring the operations now handled by the Botanical Society and the Fort Worth Garden Club to the city. The Botanical Society and the Garden Club each operate at the park, and money each raises goes back into the operations of the garden. The Botanical Society, for example, operates the Japanese Gardens.
The Fort Worth Garden Club, a 60-year-old group, 30 years ago raised the money to build the visitors center. Money it generates at the center, from weddings and room rentals, goes to pay its employees.
Both groups have strong volunteer participation at the garden.
“First of all, but for a lot of dedicated people and the two major support groups and our dedicated staff, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Zavala said.
Youngblood said the new group would likely include equal representation from the city, Botanical Society and Garden Club.
Erdie Allsup, Botanical Society executive director, said the strategic action plan “is very much needed” and was done for the benefit of the Botanic Garden.
“Very few people think about the upkeep and the labor it takes,” Allsup said. “It really does cost money. Infrastructure is always an issue. The consultant and the city have the best interests of the garden at heart.”