No one loves Botanic Garden entrance fees, but here’s how Fort Worth eased the pain

Fort Worth Botanic Garden repairs

The Fort Worth Botanic Garden needs about $15 million in repairs that have been deferred according to director Bob Byers.
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The Fort Worth Botanic Garden needs about $15 million in repairs that have been deferred according to director Bob Byers.

If you’re a glass-half-empty type, there’s plenty to frown about when it comes to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.

After 80 years, one of the city’s crown jewels will start charging admission. And with that, no more city-owned attractions will be free.

But even the most pessimistic sorts should take heart at what city leaders and staff have done to try to keep the garden open to as many as possible while still filling the very real need to generate revenue for improvements and maintenance.

The list of exemptions that the City Council approved Tuesday night is extensive, including: regular free after-hours events; field trips for Fort Worth ISD schools; free summer admission for military members and their families; discounted admissions on certain Saturdays; free afternoons for Fort Worth children; and a program that will allow families with library cards to check out a free pass.

These options will eat into the revenue generated by the admission fees, set at $12 for adults ($10 for those older than 65) and $6 for children ages 6-15. But they strike a fair balance between the desire to make the garden available to everyone and what it will take to return it to its former glory.

And the garden needs repair — as much as $17 million worth, according to city officials. That’s in addition to a chronic deficit in its annual budget. The commitment of a steady revenue stream from admission fees will help with fundraising from philanthropic sources to tackle this shortfall.

All this comes at a time when the city must relentlessly focus on budget priorities.

Mayors and municipal lobbyists will gladly turn the air blue detailing all the ways the Legislature made their lives harder this year. One of those, lowering the trigger point at which local governments must ask voters to approve revenue increases, is part of the difficult tradeoffs needed to tackle everyone’s favorite funding scourge, property taxes.

For city budget writers, focusing intently on priorities such as public safety and infrastructure means getting creative about maintaining other amenities. Next will come pursuit of a nonprofit group to manage the gardens. This, too, is a necessary step, one that will be met with more protest.

After all, nostalgia is a powerful force, and some will never be happy with any admission fee to the Botanic Garden or anything other than city management. But if Fort Worth continues its thoughtful pursuit of alternatives, and the council is vigilant about protecting access for all residents, we see the glass as at least half full.

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