Thursday, August 8, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Council to reconsider changes to Zilker Botanical Garden agreement

Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy and the Austin Parks and Recreation Department released a memo Friday detailing a plan for the future management of Zilker Botanical Garden.

The additional detail comes in response to a request last month from Council Member Kathie Tovo for more time and information before taking steps toward a new operational structure.

“Not all of you supported my request for postponement, but I really appreciate that you did because most of the information that I’ve received in the time since wasn’t available to us when this came before Council, and I think that it’s always our responsibility to review and go forward with as much due diligence,” Tovo said at Council’s Tuesday work session.

City Council will consider the information and take up the proposed plan for a vote at its meeting today.

Despite an existing public-private partnership between the Conservancy and Parks and Recreation, the garden is managed and funded by the city. Citing much-needed improvements and limited city funds, however, the Conservancy plans to gradually relieve the city of its $1.1 million annual contribution by updating and diversifying revenue sources.

As part of that effort, the Conservancy plans to roughly triple admission fees, a solution that Council rejected in June on the grounds that other sources of revenue should first be identified and that the management structure needs to be outlined before considering the fee increases.

“The garden is primed to become a flourishing botanical garden not only for those who visit Austin, but for those who call Austin home,” the memo states. “Increased revenues through admissions and new fundraising by the Conservancy will allow the garden to grow while reducing its dependence on the city’s General Fund budget.”

The memo outlines three phases of transition ultimately resulting in the completion of the garden master plan, further divestment of city funds and the transfer of grounds operations from the parks department to the Conservancy. Slated to begin as soon as Council approves it, the first phase involves handing over entry gate operations to the Conservancy, adopting the new admission fees and splitting admission revenues between the garden, the Conservancy and the city’s General Fund.

The proposal calls for increasing entrance fees from $2 to $6 for Austin residents, from $3 to $8 for non-residents and from $1 to $3 for youth ages 3-18. If the plan is approved, 36 percent of the revenue would go to the city’s General Fund, 20 percent toward garden improvements and 44 percent to the Conservancy.

Initially, the memo states, the revenue would roughly neutralize the city’s financial contribution but would then grow into a net positive to the city fund as yearly admission to the garden increases.

Money allocated for site improvements like safe and accessible pedestrian paths would be managed by Parks and Recreation for the first few years, before being sent to the Conservancy along with the remaining admission revenue. According to the memo, the city and the Conservancy expect to invest approximately $150,000 annually into garden improvements.

The Conservancy would use most of the remaining revenue for staffing while reserving $10,000 for visitor enhancements like new brochures and wayfinding signage and $70,000 for gate operations.

The city would see an immediate annual savings of $70,000 in addition to its share of the admission revenue by handing over gate operations to the Conservancy.

Tovo said Tuesday that allocating so much revenue to building out the garden’s staff seems questionable, particularly if a main objective in hiring the extra staff is to support fundraising efforts. “If (the Conservancy) needs funding from the city to hire the staff to help them move forward and fundraise for our gardens, I think we need to be asking ourselves the question of whether that’s the most efficient way of getting funding to the gardens.”

The Conservancy plans to launch a series of fundraising campaigns to add to the $275,000 it has currently raised before moving into the second phase of the public-private partnership. The majority of those funds will be used for completion of the garden master plan document and the garden’s annual $250,000 operating expenses.

As new funding sources are identified, the Conservancy will also begin progressively taking charge of the garden’s programming.

In preparation for the second and third phases, the Conservancy will also begin its campaign to raise the expected $25 million in capital for the garden master plan.

Photo by Daderot [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

Zilker Park: Austin's largest downtown park, Zilker Park is comprised of 350 acres donated by Andrew Jackson Zilker in 1917. It contains the Zilker Botanical Gardens, Umlauf Sculpture Garden and adjoins Barton Springs Pool.

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