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With an estimated $15 million worth of improvements needed at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, city officials are looking at funding options as part of a 2016 Strategic Plan, including a possible admission fee.
“The real key here is to be sure that we are operating in a way that the taxpayers get the best return on their funds, that we are good stewards of the garden,” Botanic Garden Director Bob Byers said.
The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board is expected to vote on the Strategic Plan on Aug. 24. The city council is scheduled to hear a briefing on the plan Sept. 20 and vote Sept. 27.
Meetings about the garden’s strategic plan began in April after the city hired St. Louis-based EMD Consulting Group to study the garden’s operations, organization and finances, as well as come up with strategies to implement the garden’s 2010 Master Plan, which includes additional gardens, improved entryways and other amenities.
Byers said EMD estimates that the garden needs about $15 million worth of improvements.
He said he doesn’t remember the last time a Botanic Garden facility had a major renovation in the last 30 years, other than a few upgrades done to the Rock Springs Building that houses The Gardens Restaurant. One fix he said he’d like to see is structural improvements to the conservatory, whose glass has had much damage over the years.
“We’ve got a whole big backlog of stuff that needs to be worked on,” Byers said. “The city’s doing a little bit of it every year as we can, it’s just not keeping up with the need.”
Along with the upgrades, Byers said, EMD estimated that the garden needs an additional $1.5 million annually to improve operations.
EMD suggests charging admission to help pay for the work. Admission to the overall garden is free, though fees are charged for entrance to the Japanese Garden.
However, Byers said he’d like to consider other options for funding the improvements, such as private donations, which the garden plans to “actively pursue.”
“There are other funding options in the plan, it’s just that it appears to them that admission fee is the best one,” he said. “But it’s certainly not the only one we’re looking at.”
Justin Newhart, preservation program director for the nonprofit historic preservation group Historic Fort Worth Inc., said his organization has been closely following the progress of the strategic plan.
He said Historic Fort Worth Inc. suggests using some of the hotel, sales and mixed-beverage taxes set aside for the Will Rogers Memorial Center Arena to help fund the Botanic Garden. The garden is part of a Project Financing Zone that covers about a three-mile radius around the Will Rogers Complex, and increments of hotel, sales and mixed-beverage taxes within that area go toward funding the arena.
“[The arena] is going to be right next door to the Botanic Garden,” Newhart said. “It would be nice if some of that money could be used to solve some of the Botanic Garden’s problems as well.”
The garden is also looking to streamline its budget. Currently it has three budgets from three separate entities that manage the garden – the Fort Worth Botanical Society, Fort Worth Garden Club and the City of Fort Worth. Byers said the garden hopes to create one single budget, as well as a single entity that manages the garden.
Judy Koslow, president of the Fort Worth Garden Club, said her group is willing to follow whatever the city council decides for financing garden improvements, whether it be an admission fee or another form of funding.
She said the Garden Club is also looking at other funding possibilities, such as private fundraising or a member endowment to the Botanic Garden.
“We’re happy to go through the process of hiring a strategic planning group and to hear what we’ve been told goes on in other gardens and look at ways to help our garden be more user-friendly, help the visitor experiences and to help bring more services to the gardens without causing an undue tax burden or any other burden on the many people that use the garden,” Koslow said.
Even with approval of the strategic plan, any policy implementation, such as charging an admission fee, will need to be voted on separately by the city council, Byers said. If an admission fee were added, it likely wouldn’t happen until 2018, he said.
In the meantime, Byers said, the strategic planning meetings are open to the public.
“The strategic plan is not an instrument for approving an admission fee,” he said. “It’s only looking at our finances and what they think are the best ways to address the issues identified.”