Two years ago, the Fort Worth Botanic Garden was at a crossroads. The oldest major botanic garden in Texas faced an annual operating budget shortfall of $1.2 million, looming maintenance costs and drooping attendance numbers – not to mention a months-long shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That reality led Fort Worth City Council members to pass management of the gardens to the nonprofit Botanical Research Institute of Texas in June 2020. The public-private partnership, or agreement between a government and private group to run a public amenity, allowed Fort Worth to retain ownership of the garden’s land while the institute — which sits next door — took over daily operations.
Since the agreement went into effect on Oct. 1, 2020, both sides of the partnership say the results speak for themselves: Attendance numbers went up 174% between fiscal year 2020, which began on Oct. 1, 2019 and ended on Sept. 30, 2020, and fiscal year 2021, which spanned Oct. 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021.
The city is also achieving its goal of contributing less money to the garden’s budget, said Patrick Newman, BRIT’s chief executive officer.
“We’re still very much in the process of merging two institutions who have unique histories and unique cultures, and so it’s been a process, but a very rewarding one,” Newman said.
The garden welcomed more than 250,000 visitors last year. Thanks to a 2019 council decision allowing the garden to charge admission fees for the vast majority of visitors, admissions fees accounted for 32% of revenue in 2021 – an increase from 17% in 2020, according to a January city manager’s report.
Meanwhile, Fort Worth’s “subsidy” to BRIT dropped from 74% of the garden’s revenue in 2020 to 45% last year. Sandra Youngblood, who oversees the contract between the city and BRIT for Fort Worth’s parks department, said the $2 million earned from fees is going toward visible improvements to the garden’s amenities, including renovations to roads that will make it more pedestrian-friendly.
“People are getting a better experience there because they’re able to take the additional revenues and invest it back into the garden,” Youngblood said. “In the past, we were limited, because to put on a big show requires investment. They’re able to raise the funds to secure these exhibits, and the revenue goes back to generating additional interest for the Botanic Garden.”
The decision to charge an admission fee did not come without controversy, and some longtime fans of the garden remain concerned about how the $12 adult fee and $6 charge for children has affected the ability of families, especially with lower incomes, to visit the garden.
Exploring the Rose Garden and turtle pond used to be an important part of Nancy Hynes’ routine with her grandchildren, Hynes said. If she had an hour to kill while running errands in Fort Worth, she would drop by the garden to check out the latest sights.
But Hynes hasn’t returned since the admissions fees were implemented in 2019, and she knows many others who have done the same.
“I want (the garden) to do well,” Hynes said. “Keep the garden at all costs. But surely there’s some tradeoff point where more people can go at a lower fee and they will get the same amount of money they’re looking for.”
Under Fort Worth’s contract with BRIT, at least 10% of total visitors must receive free or reduced cost admission. Between April and September 2021, there were 15,130 “accessibility guests,” or 11.7% of total visitors during that period, who entered the garden for free or at a reduced price, according to the city manager’s January report.
Beyond complimentary admission for Fort Worth students and passes available through the Fort Worth Public Library, the garden also promotes some free admission days, most recently on Juneteenth, to reduce barriers to enjoying the garden’s numerous green spaces, Newman said.
Garden and city officials are “keenly aware” that the decision to charge for admission is a sensitive subject, especially for longtime residents who were used to the free model, he added. The institute stands by the position that paid admission is an investment in the garden as a community asset, Newman said.
“Candidly, that model wouldn’t have worked in a long-term and sustainable model,” Newman said. “It’s why entities like the (Fort Worth) zoo made the same move a quarter century ago. It wasn’t a selfish grab. It wasn’t an attempt by us to make money, but rather it was a way for us to keep the garden as a local treasure for the community today and decades into the future.”
Amy Martin, an environmental journalist and author of the forthcoming book “Wild DFW: Explore the Amazing Nature of Dallas-Fort Worth,” said parks and gardens tend to be the first part of city budgets on the chopping block, leaving those departments to bring in income to keep themselves alive.
As long as city nature centers are providing an alternative way for people of limited means to access the space, Martin said, she generally supports charging an admission fee at the gate.
“Nature spaces don’t run themselves,” Martin said. “They take a lot of maintenance. Even naturalistic areas take a lot of maintenance. You can’t just let nature run its course. Nature enterprises are labor-intensive, and we want to pay people a decent rate for hard work. That takes money.”
If someone had asked her 10 years ago, Youngblood would have preferred free admission, too. But the changes over the past two years have convinced her that the change was worth it, especially since individual fees to enter the Japanese Garden and conservatory were eliminated and consolidated into one charge, she said.
“There are a lot of improvements and capital projects underway as well,” Youngblood said. “A lot of it the general public will never know and see, such as drainage issues we have in certain areas of the garden.”
Fort Worth has already approved $7 million in funding through the 2022 bond program for repairs to garden facilities, infrastructure improvements and other costs related to event and guest services. The garden has set its priorities through 2024, including plans to develop a science communication program and plant 500,000 bulbs.
Garden officials are also in the process of finalizing their master plan, which will establish a 20-year strategy for maintaining and improving the 120-acre campus. BRIT released a draft of the master plan in May, and Newman expects that draft to be finalized in the fall before going to the council for approval.
The garden’s next priorities include growing its membership program and seeking more philanthropic funding, Newman said. With private events returning after the pandemic and education programs like the garden’s summer camps selling out, the future for the garden is bright, he said.
“We have no intention of resting on our laurels,” he said. “We envision that this will continue and we’re working diligently to make sure that the things we set out to do, we accomplish. We’re very excited about the future and look forward to creating a space that invites the community to come and create emotional souvenirs with us.”
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