The debate over charging nonresidents of St. Louis and St. Louis County for admission to the various free Zoo-Museum District institutions was reignited in St. Louis this month. “A small entrance fee of, say, $8 for non-city, non-county people would be fair and would help institutions terrifically,” said Ben Uchitelle, the former chairman of the board of the Zoo-Museum District.
He recently wrote a commentary calling for an admission charge for those who live outside the city and county of St. Louis in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a position also supported by the Post’s editorial page.
Uchitelle argues the ZMD institutions are not actually free for people who pay the property taxes that help fund the institutions. In addition, without a source of more revenue, he said, the quality of these organizations could suffer and eventually cause them to lose their status as world-class institutions.
Adventure tour leader and mother Jessica Hoagland of St. Louis disagrees, saying the current model helps carve out an identity for the city.
“Keeping these cultural institutions free and affordable and with easy access speaks to this awareness of the bigger picture and this sense of greatness about our city.”
Right now, St. Louis city and county residents pay a property tax of approximately 28 cents per $100 of assessed value to support the ZMD, which was established in 1971 through a state law. This statute established the charter for the St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Art Museum and St. Louis Science Center. The Missouri History Museum and the Missouri Botanical Garden have charters from before they were brought into the district in the early 1980s. Allowances were made at the time for the garden as it already charged admission.
Here are the 2014 tax levy and revenue for each of the institutions:
- St. Louis Art Museum: $20 million ($.08 per $100 of assessed value)
- St. Louis Zoo: $20 million ($.08 per $100 of assessed value)
- Missouri Botanical Garden: $10 million ($.0399 per $100 of assessed value)
- Missouri History Museum: $10 million ($.0399 per $100 of assessed value)
- St. Louis Science Center: $10 million ($.0399 per $100 of assessed value)
The 1971 law establishing the ZMD would have to be changed to allow the ZMD institutions to charge admission. That would first require the Missouri Legislature to introduce and pass a bill giving the institutions the option to charge an admission fee. Once such a bill passed, an admission charge would not come automatically. Each institution would have to evaluate the benefits and consequences of an admission for nonlocal visitors.
Uchitelle wrote that implementing this new model would result in more money for the Zoo and the science center. “The Zoo could expect to generate well over $5.7 million net income a year; the science center more than $2.1 million net income from a small entrance charge to non-city and county visitors.”
Uchitelle made these calculations by comparing the data for outside visitors -- and resulting income -- for the garden to similar numbers for the zoo and science center.
Charles Valier, a ZMD board member, said he understands Uchitelle’s position but doesn’t support it.
“Ben’s proposal is eminently fair; his rationale is fair,” said Valier. “But as far as the ZMD board is concerned, and I’m not speaking for them, they’re going to take their cue from the institutions themselves.”
And roughly a year ago, the board asked institutions if they would support an admission model. They said no.
According to Valier, who helped pass the original legislation establishing the ZMD, the art museum is unlikely to support any change.
“It’s been chiseled in stone over their front door that they will be free for all, and it would take something more than granite to move them,” he said.
Valier also cited a common trend among art museums to adopt free or “pay what you wish” entrance models. Valier also said the price of implementing ticketing systems would not be offset by the negligible number of out-of-town attendees at that institution. He said too few nonresidents attend the museum to support the proposed entrance fee and cites an expected cost of $75,000 for installing and maintaining those systems.
Valier also said the history museum sees so few outside visitors that the cost of implementing charges would be more expensive than the money earned through admission charges.
Valier believes that the science center might be a viable candidate for charging admission, but the Zoo is the real test.
Uchitelle said that 59 percent of visitors to the Zoo come from outside the county and city, but Valier said that 56 percent is more accurate. Valier predicted that the Zoo could expect a drop in attendance of roughly 20-30 percent if it charged admission. This drop would be significant because on average Zoo visitors spend $22 a visit on food, drinks, rides and souvenirs. A suggested $8 entrance fee from those who continue visiting would not make up for the $22 lost for each person who no longer came.
Nick Kasoff, of Ferguson, understands the need for more money for the institutions but doesn’t think admission fees are the right approach. He’s not concerned with people from other states visiting once a year and not paying their share; he’s more interested in ensuring residents of surrounding counties are contributing to institutions they are likely to frequent as often as people on the edge of St. Louis County.
“It doesn’t seem right to me that working class and poor people in St. Louis and the poorer parts of St. Louis County are subsidizing the much more affluent visitors to the Zoo who come from St. Charles County and don’t contribute a thing,” Kasoff said.
It's unlikely though that neighboring counties would vote to tax themselves to support the ZMD.
As the debate about how to increase income for the Zoo-Museum District continues, without support from the institutions or voters, all the talk about charging admission to out of town visitors may stay that: just talk.
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