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Monday, April 19, 2021

Council Report: Briefing on Botanic Garden options

Now that the Fort Worth City Council has assured the future of the Botanic Garden, steps are being taken to make sure as many folks enjoy its offerings as possible.

That was the focus of a briefing from Assistant City Manager Susan Alanis and Botanic Garden Director Bob Byers during Tuesday’s city council work session.

The purpose of the presentation was to clarify and obtain approval on accessibility options at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. In October, the Fort Worth Garden Task Force recommended an admission fee that was approved by council, with various recommended accessibility options, along with approval for transitioning the governance of the Garden to non-profit management.

Also, any reductions or elimination of accessibility options must be approved by the city council.

“The Council previously approved fees that will serve as a big step in ensuring the sustainability of the Garden for future generations,” Alanis said. “The discussion today confirms the importance all are placing on also ensuring accessibility and broad usage by all members of our community.”

City staff evaluated various free times, including:

*Fort Worth students or FWISD students.

*Free day each week – one suggestion was to rotate the day to ensure convenience for all.

*Free hours at end of day for residents only.

*Free family day once per month.

Approved fees are:

*Admission: Adults $12, seniors 65-plus $10, children (6-15) $6, ages 5-under free.

*Annual memberships: Family (2 named adults and all children under 18) $100, Lone Star Family (same as family) $30, Individual (one named adult) $50, Dual (two named adults) $80, Contributing (Family plus one additional adult per visit) $200, Supporting (Family plus two additional adults per visit) $500, Sponsor (Family plus two adults per visit and two event tickets) $1,000.

Recommended accessibility options include:

*Membership: Basic Family membership.

*Lone Star Card discounts, SNAP/WIC.

*Discounted Family membership – $30.

*Museums4All – $1 adult admission, children under 15 free.

*MusePass – Free family passes in City of Fort Worth public libraries.

*Sponsored field trips program.

*Return ticket for field trips students on free and reduced lunch.

*Blue Star Program – free active military admission, Memorial Day through Labor Day.

*Family Community Pass Program – 4,500 passes through non-profits.

“People need to understand the balance we’re trying to strike here,” District 9 Councilwoman Ann Zadeh said.

Accessibility goals include providing multiple access options to the garden, reducing impact on membership through carefully crafted programs, and avoid issues other institutions have experienced relying on free admission to assure accessibility.

At the same time, revenue goals must be met, including finding the best compromise between revenue and affordability, investing in programs that improve access, engaging and supporting families, improving programming, and fully funding the operating needs, along with addressing deferred maintenance.

Research mentioned in the briefing indicates that free days as a primary access strategy don’t change visitor demographics or reach underserved audiences. Meanwhile, well-designed programs funded by adequate revenue do improve access. Also, properly funded offerings and facilities build audiences, including the underserved.

Other cultural institutions were also questioned and studied for input, including the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, Botanical Research Institute of Texas, Museum of Modern Art, Log Cabin Village, Museum of Science and History, and Amon Carter Museum.

Among the feedback:

*School programs introduce many children who may never visit with their families, but have important experiences and may return as adults.

*Currently approved options are already risking financial health.

*Consider phasing in options to gauge impact.

The feedback also showed that fees gives a perceived value and respect for the experience that increases. Free facilities/programs are more poorly attended than those with fees, which are seen as more worth the time.

The guest impact of free admission, according to feedback, includes:

*Free programs on peak days resulted in overcrowding, poor visitor experience, and complaints.

*The operational impact of free admission can lead to additional staff being needed for several hours on rotating days, while anticipated increased attendance can create scheduling and cost implications.

*Parking and traffic implications include the challenge of verifying residents versus non-residents, which can bog down the admission process and result in guest dissatisfaction. There’s also the factors of zip code discrepancies and guests of residents.

“When you set up these hours, these free days, all that stuff, we still have to pay for the Botanic Garden,” District 5 Councilwoman Gyna Bivens said. “I just ask you to use common sense.”

The revised recommendations are:

*Adjust basic family membership rates from $100 to $80.

*Proceed with all access options supported by task force.

*Fine-tune school group target grade to meet the needs of the districts.

*Add special needs adult children to family memberships.

*Add free after-hours (6-9 p.m.), family and cultural events at least quarterly, growing to monthly over time (example: mariachi concerts, ethnic foods festivals).

Other options for consideration are:

*Second and fourth Mondays: free first hour in a.m. and last hour in p.m., residents only.

*One half-price Saturday morning, three hours, per month.

*Children under 18 years free 3-6 p.m. every school day, residents only.

The risk, however, is a reduction in admission and membership revenue lost by $108,850 and 35% overall loss in memberships.

District 4 Councilman Cary Moon, who has been an advocate for keeping the garden free to the public, said, “I hope as we invest these city dollars – and public dollars – in this we can come back with a better product.”

Under the task force recommendation, operating sustainability goes from negative $1.2 million to $426,521 by Fiscal Year 2024. With the additional options, it goes to $295,580 in that same span. With the daily free periods scenario and no task force recommendations, it goes to $195,284 in five years.

District 7 Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Dennis Shingleton said, “I think it’s obvious from the task force that the needs at the Botanic Garden far exceed our capability of the city subsidizing all of these necessary accomplishments. I think this is a great first step – and I mean a first step, and as we mature and learn how pricing is affecting our bottom line and the needs that we have over there, we continue to massage that fee structure.”

Then, he added that, “If you play the game correctly, parent, grandparent, senior citizen, you can visit the Botanic Garden pretty much as you used to without a whole lot of outlay of money.”

The council is expected to have an item on the June 25 agenda. The plan is to complete and launch accessibility before July 18, with new admission beginning July 19.

Alanis said the process is a “Three-legged stool.” She said it will require future bond programs, donors and benefactors, and admissions/members.

“It really requires all of that to do what needs to be done to this facility,” she said.

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