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Officials drop plan to seek private operator for Zilker Garden

Wednesday, May 23, 2012 by Charles Boisseau

Reeling from an outpouring of negative comments, Parks and Recreation Department officials quickly backed off a draft plan to solicit proposals from private firms to operate Zilker Botanical Garden.


Parks managers pulled the agenda item just prior to the start of Tuesday’s Parks and Recreation Board meeting because of an outpouring of opposition and concerns from members of local garden clubs. The proposal, lifted in a trial balloon in recent days and the subject of a front-page story in the Austin American-Statesman on Monday, was to explore seeking a private partner to “assume operations” of the 26-acre garden.


During citizen comments at Tuesday’s meeting, seven of the eight people spoke in opposition to the idea, which was in the form of a draft request for proposal that parks officials have shared with only a select few city insiders and garden clubs.


Citizens and garden club members, who constantly use the botanical garden for shows and meetings – and have spent countless hours volunteering at the center — expressed concern that a private operator would jack up fees (now $2 for adults and $1 for kids), make the center less accessible and lack the specialized knowledge to best care for the botanical garden’s carefully selected Austin- and Central Texas-specific vegetation.


Ginger Soulé, a member and past president of the Austin Organic Gardeners, said outsiders wouldn’t have the “botanical and biological knowledge. You’re dealing with … specialized plants that don’t behave like things sold in Big Box stores. They require special treatment.”

Activist Susan Moffat said the “larger issue is having a private company operate public facilities.” Moffat, who confessed she lacks a green thumb but visits the botanical garden frequently with out-of-town guests, questioned how it is that the conversation over the crimped park budget has “morphed” into an expectation that parks “should pay for themselves.”


Kimberly McNeeley, assistant parks director, said she and Parks Director Sara Hensley made the decision to pull the proposal from the agenda after receiving numerous negative comments.


“It’s not our intention to make people anxious or angry,” McNeeley told In Fact Daily in the lobby of City Hall during a break from the board meeting. McNeeley said parks officials may come back with a better proposal in a few months after doing a much more thorough job of reaching out to stakeholders.


The Zilker Botanical Garden, which was created in 1955 in collaboration with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department and a garden organization that would become the Austin Area Garden Council, hosts about 350,000 visitors a year. The draft RFP floated by the parks department obtained by In Fact Daily called for an initial five-year contract with a contractor that would share revenues with the parks department and take over operations of “the Gardens, including but not limited to, managing programming of the facility such as special events, concessions, and horticultural displays; maintaining the gardens and historical buildings; and providing marketing services, financial, and personnel management.”


Hensley, in her remarks to the board members and the public overflowing the Boards and Commissions Room, said the parks department is “not interested if there is not enough interest in working with us and moving forward” with the plan.


Hensley also said the plan was never to “privatize” the botanical garden but to create a “partnership,” making a distinction that may have left some in attendance confused.


If a private operator were brought in “the AAGC would likely be completely thrown out of the building that the AAGC built,” said Craig Nazor, a horticulture consultant and member of the Austin Cactus and Succulent Society and the Austin Area Garden Council.


Nazor suggested that a better plan was to form an independent nonprofit organization made up of nonprofit foundations and garden clubs that could operate the facility. This would be preferable because the nonprofit organization could feed money generated at the center back to the botanical garden. Currently, park fees are funneled into the city’s General Fund.


McNeeley told Nazor she was interested in hearing his ideas for such a proposal, which Nazor said would be similar to one he helped draft in 2003 for the Hartman Foundation. He said the plan failed to gain support of City Council members and city officials, but suggested now might be the time to revisit such a proposal.


Speaking in favor of exploring the private partnership was Ralph Webster, president of the Austin Parks Foundation. “It’s the Austin Parks Foundation’s view that we need to come up with different ways of funding our parks,” he said.


Another speaker, Dan Crow, also stressed the need for more funds for city parks, but said bringing in a private company to operate the garden was not the way to go. The parks are “for green space, for our kids … It’s the soul of Austin to have parks,” he told board members. “I just hope we can stay away from privatizing.”


Jane Rivera, chair of the parks board, responded: “Thank you for your support for the need for more budget for parks.”

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