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$450,000 Deficit Risks Botanical Center's Future

A Board Member Says Every Water Customer Pays About $5.17 Per Year to Cover the Amount

Jason Clayworth

Des Moines Register

May 10, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

The Des Moines Botanical Center lost almost $450,000 last year, which generated talk from city leaders Tuesday that the nearly 27-year-old attraction should close.

"I don't think the city is going to want to hear this information, but the sooner we reveal the true, hard facts, the better we are as a community," said Des Moines Water Works board member Sue Ryan.

The Botanical Center has had the threat of closure at its heels for at least five years as attendance slipped and taxpayer subsidies increased.

Annual attendance has fallen by about 78 percent since 1990.

The Water Works, which is owned by the city but operates separately, took over management of the center in 2004 after city leaders threatened to close it because of an $851,645 deficit that taxpayers covered in the previous year.

Water Works officials hoped to close the gap with improved marketing and new attractions. They've nearly cut the annual deficit in half, but the attraction is still losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

Water users in 2005 subsidized the attraction by $437,850, according to a draft report that was released Tuesday by Water Works.

In 2004, water customers bailed the center out of red ink by shelling out roughly $600,000.

While water officials say the losses have not raised rates, the last water hike in 2004 generated about $500,000 extra each year for the water department - or roughly the same amount that the Botanical Center lost.

Ryan estimated that every water customer pays about $5.17 per year to cover the Botanical Center's deficit. She told water officials Tuesday that "we need to pull the plug and get this thing off life support."

The Botanical Center is under management by the water department for about four more years, according to the 2003 agreement with the city. Board members of the water department's finance and audit committee said their options are to continue to eat the deficits, hand management back over to the city or find a corporate sponsor or another group to take over.

The committee requested a special public meeting to discuss the issue with the council.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said he's not yet willing to vote to close the center's doors. He noted that the center, at 909 E. River Drive, is located along the planned Principal Riverwalk and may again become a vital attraction in the next few years.

"In the end, if it's way too costly, maybe we ought to figure out something else," Cownie said.

City Manager Rick Clark said late Tuesday that he was not aware of the deficit. He said he will not recommend closing the center to the council until he sees the report and a number of "brainstorming" meetings with the community takes place.

"I've always thought the Botanical Center is an asset," Clark said. "Obviously, if it's losing that kind of money, those losses have to be dealt with."

Ann Hutchins is the former president of Friends of the Des Moines Botanical Center, a group that supports the facility. She expressed sadness late Tuesday about the talk of closing the facility and noted that, for decades, the building's dome was proud symbol for Iowa's capital city.

"Any time you have something like that, it's important to the community," Hutchins said.