Fort Worth council hears of needs, fee idea for Botanic Garden

Is an admission price in the future for the Fort Worth Botanic Garden? That question could be answered by the Fort Worth City Council in the near future.

In its pre-council meeting on Sept. 20, the council heard a presentation from Richard Zavala, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, along with Rick Daley of St. Louis-based EMD Consulting Group. The focus was a strategic plan centered around repairs and improvements needed for the garden and the possibility of an admission fee.

Currently, the garden is free except for the Japanese Garden and the Conservatory. Those two exhibits charge $9 for adults, and the Conservatory is closed for repairs.

Daley said the garden needs $15 million for infrastructure, along with about $1.5 million annually for staffing.

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“Glass is falling out of the Conservatory. It’s not safe to be in there,” Daley told the council.

The council is expected to vote on the strategic plan in an coming meeting, perhaps as soon as the Sept. 27 meeting.

Daley said one plan for funding is to ask taxpayers. However, he said that is not his ideal solution.

“It won’t drive philanthropy and drive support,” he said. “Fort Worth can have one of the great gardens of this country, if not the world.

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“Look at what the Stock Show does. Look at what the public-private partnership has done there.”

Daley displayed a benchmark comparison of the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden:

*Acres – Dallas 66, Fort Worth 110

*Budget – Dallas $16 million, Fort Worth $4.3 million

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*City contribution – Dallas $400,000, Fort Worth $2.5 million

*Estimated annual attendance – Dallas 750,000, Fort Worth 500,000 (but very unofficial because of numerous entrances in Fort Worth)

*Members – Dallas 40,000, Fort Worth 1,400

*Admission – Dallas $18 adults, Fort Worth free/$9 adults to Japanese Garden and Conservatory

Daley noted that the city of Fort Worth ranks highest among the major cities he listed in financial help provided to its garden, contributing 58 percent of the facility’s budget. Comparisons showed Brooklyn, Chicago and Denver at 32 percent each and New York City at 19 percent.

Daley suggested reorganizing support groups and creating a friends organization focused on fundraising. Along with that, he recommended replacing the “piecemeal” admission with a general admission that covers all parts of the garden.

“It’s much better, much fairer to have an admission charge,” he said. “It is what drives membership.”

In evaluating what the garden has to offer, Daley said, “There are a lot of great things, but it could be so much better.”

Daley suggested the Botanic Garden could host such activities as a tulip festival, pumpkin festival and light shows in the winter. He also recommended such additions as a children’s garden.

“Fort Worth deserves a first-rate children’s garden,” he said.

Other possible additions could be garden art (he showed an example from Zimbabwe) and hands-on children’s education.

“These are the kind of things Fort Worth can have and should have,” he said.

He also suggested the addition of a pedestrian-friendly tram.

“We want to make it more of a gardenesque environment,” Daley said.

“This jewel is far, far too important to us as a city,” District 7 council member Dennis Shingleton said.

Mayor Betsy Price recalled her days as child growing up less than a mile from the garden. She remembered taking her own children there.

“The rock garden is great. When I was 5 or 6 it used to be the best place in the world to catch tadpoles,” she said.

“It was a place I went with my small children on a regular basis,” District 9 Council Member Ann Zadeh said.

But not all council members were warm to the idea of charging an admission, or at least they wanted to look a little deeper into the idea.

“If we focus on one group and leave out another, we’re creating divisiveness,” said District 8 Council Member Kelly Allen Gray. “Everybody is not in position to do that, and I want to make sure the gardens are available to everybody.”

To which the mayor added, “As a young child, my parents wouldn’t have paid for the four of us.”

The mayor suggested a further study of who is visiting the garden before fees are assessed.

“Clearly a guiding principle is going to be accessibility to the public,” Zavala said.

District 5 Council Member Gyna Bivens suggested using Metroplex media to bring attention to the Botanic Garden, which could help bring support. She said that while work needs to be done, there are still parts of the garden that can be highlighted for such things as weather reports, for example. She said local celebrities endorsing the Dallas Arboretum helped there and could do the same for the Fort Worth garden.

“Let’s not wait until we get perfect to have this kind of outreach,” Bivens said.