There’s No Such Thing As a Free Zoo

Why St. Louis needs to overhaul its funding of cultural institutions

Illustration by Danny Elchert

Nearly four decades ago, St. Louis’ leaders took a bold and visionary step that would reshape the area’s cultural landscape into the following century.

In an unprecedented move, they brought together residents of the city and county in a new joint taxing entity known as the Metropolitan Zoological Park & Museum District (ZMD). Its mission: To use property-tax dollars to preserve and protect three of the area’s most hallowed, but financially troubled, institutions: the Saint Louis Zoo, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and what then was known as the Museum of Science and Natural History.

It was an amazing triumph of regionalism at a time of shaky relations between the city and county. After a fierce 1970 battle in the Missouri Legislature and hard-fought ballot measures in the city and county, the ZMD was created against all odds. Long-term funding would be ensured, and the institutions would remain—as the legislation stated—“forever free.”

It worked.

Under the new funding umbrella, the Zoo and Art Museum—formerly city departments—not only stabilized, but also grew in national stature. The struggling science museum (then a small county entity) moved to the city and greatly expanded into the widely respected Saint Louis Science Center.

Over the years, the district has mushroomed into a $71 million funding powerhouse, more than 17 times as large as it was in its initial year. Voters in the city and county have since admitted the Missouri Botanical Garden and Missouri History Museum to the ZMD, giving even greater scope and prestige to the district.

As all this has happened, St. Louisans have proudly clung to an important distinction: The beloved institutions have remained largely free to the public. (The only exception is the Garden, which was already charging admission before joining the ZMD).

But there’s one small problem with the civic achievement that’s worked so well for the last 40 years: It’s not going to repeat that success in the coming decades without a significant overhaul.

Today, with the property-tax bases of the city and county stagnant at best—and the area’s corporate philanthropic base in a free fall—the long-term financial future of the cultural institutions is in real jeopardy. And even in the short run, the institutions are facing challenges that cry out for new thinking about revenue.

Simply put, St. Louis’ cultural institutions need to do what almost all of their counterparts across the country do: Tap into the tens of millions of tourist dollars that are annually unrealized here because the institutions are free to all visitors.

And closer to home, the metropolitan area needs to repeat the process of 1970 by learning to think as a metropolitan area. That means figuring out a way to entice the region’s surrounding counties to join the ZMD, or for their residents to pay as they go as visitors to the cultural institutions.

All this would represent significant change. Here’s what would stay the same:

All of the institutions would remain “forever free” to those individuals whose tax dollars provide support, meaning the residents of St. Louis city and county. That was the premise upon which the voters of the city and county were sold in 1970, and it must be honored now and forever.

City and county residents—and perhaps even a reasonable number of guests—would continue to receive free admission to all of the institutions. Period.

What’s needed now is a new mind-set at the ZMD’s institutions: Those who provide support through their tax dollars are entitled to some consideration—some special level of benefit—that differentiates them from those who do not provide such support. This mind-set exists without exception today in the institutions’ membership programs. No institution would dream of asking members for contributions in exchange for nothing but a warm-and-fuzzy feeling on the inside.

Think of taxpayer dollars as prepaid admission, or membership dues, whatever. But don’t take them from people with nothing in return and tell them the institutions are “free.”

This line of thinking does, of course, represent change, and St. Louisans do not suffer change gladly. But when it comes to funding cultural institutions, we are candle-makers scoffing at electricity. We are streetcar riders.

Two sociological elephants have entered the room. First, the St. Louis area’s population distribution has changed dramatically since 1970, rendering the current structure neither wise nor fair for the 21st century. Second, tourism today bears no more resemblance to the tourism world of 1970 than your laptop does to an IBM electric typewriter.

In 1970, the city and county represented more than 80 percent of the census-defined metropolitan area, and more than 88 percent of the area that includes the five largest surrounding counties (St. Charles, Jefferson, and Franklin in Missouri, Madison and St. Clair in Illinois). Today city and county residents comprise less than half of the metropolitan area and barely 55 percent of the region including these five counties.

In 1970, the large majority of St. Louisans came together to save the cultural institutions. Today, less than half of the citizenry is left to carry the tax burden that fulfills the dream. There are actually 220,000 fewer residents today than there were in 1970 within the combined borders of the city and county, while the metropolitan area has grown by more than 400,000.

Meanwhile, tourism dollars—known as chump change in 1970 government circles—have become a multimillion-dollar revenue lifeline for just about every state, county, and city from sea to shining sea. The Missouri Tourism Commission was only three years old in 1970; today, every burg this side of Mayberry has a tourism campaign.

The political focus in 1970 was to do everything possible just to eke out the improbable triumph of getting the ZMD created. Tourism dollars weren’t on the radar as a significant revenue source. Had they been perceived as a source of tens of millions in annual support to the institutions, we wouldn’t need to have this discussion today.

All of which brings us to the two fundamental reasons why yesterday’s triumph of vision is covered with today’s civic fog: It isn’t smart and it isn’t fair.

A study of 10 metro areas closest in size to St. Louis is revealing. Zoos charge on average $15.62 for adults, $11.03 for kids; science centers, $12.64 and $9.47; history museums, $8.35 and $4.60.

Only in the case of art museums can it be soundly argued that free admission doesn’t extract a huge price, as half of the counterparts in similar markets have no charges at the door. But even without free admission, the art museum could still reward its city-county supporters with some benefits that might not be available to tourists (e.g., free admission to more paid exhibitions, along the lines of “Free Fridays”).

Of the Zoo’s 3 million annual visitors, about half are from outside the city or county, and an estimated 900,000 come from outside the metropolitan area. It stretches the imagination to suggest that St. Louis’ indisputably world-class zoo would lose a significant amount of tourists if it charged the going rate that other, mostly lesser zoos are getting today.

Even at average pricing, the upside to the Zoo would be in the $15 million to $20 million range annually, potentially matching the city-county support without costing those taxpayers a dime. The take from out-of-town tourists would almost certainly exceed $10 million annually.

(By the way, while we’re debating the merits of keeping our zoo “free,” tell that to the local parents of young children who, after paying their property-tax dollars, still get to pay $11 for parking, $5 per child for the zoo train, $4 per child for the Children’s Zoo, and $3 per child for the carousel. That’s $35 for a family with just two kids before they hit the snow-cone stand.)

At the Science Center, where roughly half of the million or so visitors are from outside the city and county, it’s not inconceivable to see in excess of $5 million pouring in annually to supplement taxpayers’ support. At the History Museum, where total annual attendance is roughly 300,000, the numbers would be smaller, but just as proportionately significant.

These are largely tourist dollars we are considering here. Tourists spend money. They expect to spend money. It’s what tourists do.

Tourism without dollars is a zoo without animals. And until the Association of Underprivileged Tourists comes forward with hard numbers suggesting that it’s mainly free admission that brings visitors to St. Louis’ top-flight institutions, it’s hard to imagine that charging what counterparts do around the country is a bad idea.

As for the more-than-half of the metropolitan-area residents who are currently enjoying free admission thanks to the tax dollars of the less-than-half, were they to join the ZMD at the same rate as the city and county, it could generate more than $45 million in new dollars annually to the ZMD. Even if membership in the tax district were offered to surrounding counties at half the property tax paid by the city and county residents, it could reap the Zoo and museums tens of millions in new revenues annually.

So here’s what needs to happen, sooner rather than later.

First, the ZMD needs to receive legislative approval to be expanded to include the surrounding counties in the region. St. Charles, Jefferson, and Franklin counties in Missouri and St. Clair and Madison in Illinois are the obvious ones for starters (although making an interstate pact is legally more complex).

Next, the words “forever free” need to be amended to read, “Forever free to residents of the ZMD’s taxing districts.” For the first time, it would at least be possible for the citizens of the city and county to receive a special level of benefit in exchange for their hard-earned tax dollars, just as institutions’ members do.

Next, the ZMD institutions would be invited, purely at their own discretion, to begin charging admission to non-taxpayers or otherwise creating some form of benefit level to those whose tax dollars provide support.

Finally, the residents of the surrounding counties would be sincerely invited to join the ZMD. In so doing, these citizens would be replicating the historic regionalism of 1970 that made the ZMD possible. They would also be confirming a simple truth: They are as much a part of St. Louis as the people who reside in St. Louis city and county.

By joining the ZMD, the surrounding counties could secure for their residents the same “forever free” level of benefits that city and county residents would have. They would have representation on the ZMD board, and their own cultural institutions could be eligible to join the ZMD.

In the event that one or more counties in the region chose not to join the ZMD, their residents could still obtain free admission as members of the individual institutions. Otherwise, they could pay as they go.

This much is certain: There’s no possibility—absolutely none—that the citizens of the outlying counties are going to wake up one day and decide to tax their property to support the ZMD institutions in exchange for nothing. Why should they?

Creating a benefit level of free admission for those who support the ZMD is not only the right thing to do, but it’s the only possible way to usher in a renewed era of regionalism that brings the surrounding counties into the revenue picture. It would have the pleasant side effect of providing residents of those counties with a serious reason to join the ZMD.

That said, there’s a good chance that the surrounding counties wouldn’t rush to join the ZMD in any event. There’s an even greater likelihood that this notion would encounter much resistance at the Zoo, where free admission is a century-old badge of honor.

But the key point to remember is that no part of this civic strategy would depend upon any other. Any of the institutions that availed themselves of tourist dollars would benefit richly, regardless of whether one or more of the others followed suit, and in no circumstance would any ZMD member be required to do anything it didn’t want to do. The same would be true of the counties: Any change in status would be strictly voluntary.

As in all things St. Louis, there is a natural tendency to cling to tradition and to resist change, so moving to the 21st-century view of tourism will not come easily. But going back to the well for more city-county property taxes will be increasingly out of the question, and philanthropic support can hardly be counted upon to grow in the long run.

Clinging to the past isn’t going to fix the future of these institutions. If looking outside the city and county for new revenue isn’t the answer, what is?

With or without an expansion of the ZMD, St. Louis truly needs to get over the notion that eschewing tourism dollars by the tens of millions serves a higher good called “forever free.” Free tourism is an oxymoron.

“Forever free” has a nice ring to it until someone points out “nothing is forever.” Well, consider it pointed out. Nothing is forever.

And “free” is nothing to be proud of.

A co-owner of St. Louis Magazine, Ray Hartmann is a panelist on KETC Channel 9’s Donnybrook, which airs Thursdays at 7 p.m.

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