Here's how to make Fort Worth's Botanic Garden grow

In recent weeks proposed plans for repairing and growing Fort Worth’s Botanic Garden have moved beyond charging an admission fee, to include a task force looking at whether the city should turn over garden management to a private, nonprofit organization.

Both ideas have generated opposition from citizens who have always been able to visit the 110-acre attraction, the first botanic garden in Texas, without paying to get in, though there’s a $7 fee for adults if you want to visit the Japanese Garden.

But, folks, we have to face some sad facts. The once stately gardens and facilities are desperately in need of a fix. City funding and other money currently available can’t keep up with maintenance, much less add modernized features and programs.

This editorial board is in favor of a reasonable admission cost as long as there are discounted days and opportunities for those to visit who can’t afford the fee.

We also think there are good reasons the city should seriously consider contracting with private management, as it has with the Fort Worth Zoo.

Underfunded and in need of repair

We wouldn't favor changes that might turn the Botanic Garden into a pricey, elitist destination.

Still, city staff make a persuasive argument that both admission fees and private management may be needed to increase the annual budget of $4.4 million by $1.5 million and raise another $17 million for infrastructure repairs, mostly through bonds. Bob Byers, the garden director, says the cost of repairs is now $2 million more than an earlier estimate.

The metal and glass conservatory that houses tropical plants has deteriorated so badly it’s closed to the public, and Byers says the garden has already lost some of its plant collection. Glass panels are missing and stress fractures threaten the structure’s stability. Park roads are crumbling and fountains at the entrance are turned off.

Proposed admission fees

Next month, the task force is expected to recommend entrance fees of $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and around $5 for children ages 6 to 12. That’s less than what was proposed earlier, and we’d like to see the ticket prices drop a little more.

Under that scenario a single visit would cost two adults and two children $30. An annual pass for an individual would cost $50 or $100 for a family.

We can go along with admission fees, if Fort Worth follows through with alternatives on the table, which include: free family passes available through public libraries and schools; days with discounted fees; and reduced fees for military members or those receiving low-income assistance.

Just don’t tack on an additional parking fee. That would feel like price gouging.

What’s being discussed in Fort Worth is much more consumer-friendly than the $15 adult entrance fee at the Dallas Arboretum gardens, which adds a parking charge of $15, and another cost if your kids want to visit the Children’s Adventure Garden.

The case for private management

For those concerned that turning over management to a private nonprofit would lessen public accountability, look at what it’s done for the Fort Worth Zoo.

Parks Director Richard Zavala says attendance at the zoo has doubled from about 515,000 in 1991, the last year of city management, to about one million visitors today.

Private management has created an opportunity for fundraising that doesn’t work under city management, he said. This April the zoo opened its privately funded 10-acre African Savanna, the first phase of a $100 million renovation that will add a new exhibit every two years.

That’s the kind of growth the Botanic Garden deserves.

A quick look at the city’s contract with the zoo is a reminder that the city needs to limit the ability of a private manager to increase fees at will, and include a cancellation clause if new managers don’t meet expectations.

The city should also establish a community advisory committee to provide feedback and ideas to private managers.

None of this is a done deal, but it’s what the city-appointed task force is expected to recommend in August. It then goes to the park board for a likely vote in October and could be approved by the city council by the end of the year.

Admission fees would probably kick in next summer.

Botanic Garden of the future

Director Byers says the Botanic Garden needs to appeal to a younger audience. “We need to get to the place where we’re not just taking people on a pretty walk,” he said.

His vision calls for exhibits and programs that include farm-to-table food production; healthy living; and more interactivity for children.

It’s a vision for re-establishing a world-class garden in Fort Worth, but it’s going to take money. The right private management and entrance fees are a way to get there.