There is hope — and a plan — for keeping the landmark Volunteer Park Conservatory open well beyond the park’s centennial celebration this summer. We also have details of when the
$800,000 $600,000 overhaul of the park playground will begin and what it will entail, below.
Volunteer Park Conservatory stewards tell CHS the 100-year-old conservatory will definitely stay open — and stay free — through 2012. But fees necessary to keep the conservatory open are coming.
Audrey Meade of the Friends of the Conservatory says the group is feeling more hopeful about the future after the city announced last year it was preparing to cut back funding the facility. “We’re getting more verbal support from the Parks Department,” says Meade.
They’re also getting a plan. CHS reported on the community process to solve the Conservatory’s budget woes last year. That plan was released this week. It recommends either either a $3 entrance fee solution or a $4 fee mixed with the addition of a new events tent space that could be used as a revenue driver to support the conservatory’s estimated $400,000+ annual operations budget.
Other options analyzed and rejected in the “business plan” included moving the conservatory structure to another location, turning the building into a permanent event space or mothballing the building.
The city hired an Arizona-based consultant in March to determine how to keep the conservatory open, financially solvent, and what the city’s future role should be. Meade says the Friends were initially worried about the $50,000 hire, but feel confident after meeting the consultant he has the conservatory’s best interest at heart.
Talk of an admission fee has circulated for some time, particularly following last year’s consultant announcement. Meade says a new fee will largely depend on the consultant’s final report. Either way, she says, the Friend’s role in running the conservatory will likely increase substantially.
Also set to increase — weddings. A big component of the final plan will likely include an increase in events hosted at the conservatory. The facility currently hosts around a dozen per year. The addition of a tent adjacent to the facilities could boost that number above 30. Sounds like it could be a lovely place for a wedding.
The group is still trying to raise $3.5 million for much-needed structural repairs. Meade says there has been some headway, but couldn’t say how much has been raised thus far.
Parks says more than 85,000 visitors come to the conservatory each year. The report notes that if Seattle Parks chose to close the conservatory, it would be an unusual step:
The findings of this review included: (1) no other conservatory has been closed for financial reasons; (2) three have come close to closing due to financial constraints but have all remained open to the public; (3) most conservatories similar to VPC are supported largely by general revenues from their city; (4) many are trying or planning to increase earned revenues; (5) the staffing level at VPC, which accounts for most of the expenses, is reasonable by national standards; and (6) the ability of VPC to become entirely financially self-sustaining is severely limited by the size of the Conservatory and the lack of facility rental space.
The proposed fees wouldn’t eliminate the need for Parks funding. Both plans would offset costs from between 40 to 75% after five years, according to the report.
Playground overhaul update
Meanwhile, plans to upgrade Volunteer Park’s play area are near complete with a project start date set for September 3.
On May 2 the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board approved the play area upgrade with no major changes. (The board had to sign off on the project after designating the entire park a city landmark last November.)
“Now we’re just dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s,” says the city’s project manager Virgina Hassinger.
The catalyst for the project was to get play equipment to meet safety standards and make the area wheelchair accessible. After the final play area schematics are in, the city’s parks engineer will sign off on the plans. Then the work contract will go before the city Finance Department with RFP’s going out in early June.
Due to neighborhood concerns over the play area and wading pool closing over the summer, construction on the new playground was pushed to September. The project should be complete by early November.
The wading pool, stair slide, and sculpture will definitely stay. Hassinger says the contractor has yet to provide a detailed diagram of the new play equipment. A “natural play” area will also be built along an “adventure trail” on the north edge of the park. These usually include boulders, logs, and sand pits.
Some grading work will be necessary to make the play area and bathrooms comply with ADA regulations.
The $600,000 project was originally budgeted at $800,000. Hassinger said the department lowered the budget after discovering original overgrown pathways that were less than 5 percent grade, making some grading work unnecessary. The extra $200,000 will be returned to the parks budget for future projects.