Suggested cuts would affect Riverside wildlife exhibit, Watson Park, arts programs

07/21/2013 8:47 AM

07/21/2013 11:27 AM

At first they couldn’t find the bobcat.

Eventually, Sarah Benbrook and her children, Brice, 11, and Jerika, 9, spotted “Bobby” resting on its back inside a hollow log, camouflaged by the natural surroundings in its enclosure at the wildlife exhibit in Riverside Park.

It may be harder to find Bobby in the park west of downtown Wichita in a couple of years. The bobcat’s long-range future, and the future of the other 25 species in the enclosure, will come under scrutiny during the next year.

Plans presented last week by City Manager Robert Layton call for cuts in amenities at Riverside and O.J. Watson parks to save about $250,000 in the city’s 2015 budget. Eliminating the wildlife exhibit would save $76,000. Trimming activities in Watson Park, such as the miniature train that children and adults have been riding for decades, would save $170,000.

The budget also calls for fees for CityArts programming to rise in 2015.

Public input will be sought throughout the process as the city wrestles with the cuts.

Benbrook said she and her children visit the animals in the Riverside Park wildlife exhibit at least once or twice a week and would miss them if they go.

“This is free,” she said. “At the Sedgwick County Zoo, you have to pay.

“If anything, they should expand it a bit, not take it away.”

The park at 700 Nims has been the site of a small zoo in various forms since 1901. Doug Kupper, the city’s parks and recreation director, said the city will consult with wildlife organizations, neighborhood residents and others throughout the year to address such questions as whether the exhibit meets the demands of the public, whether Wichita needs two animal displays and whether the enclosures – now 30 years old – provide a safe and healthy environment for the animals.

“Whether we make any changes or don’t make any changes, we’ve got a lot of work over 2014 to find out,” Kupper said.

City Council member Janet Miller, whose district includes the park, said the exhibit has meaning and importance for those who live in the district and for others who frequent the park. It serves an educational role for those who can’t afford to visit the Sedgwick County Zoo, she said.

But she also is concerned that the enclosures built in the 1980s wouldn’t pass zoological standards today in terms of animal care. She wants to find out more about that and to hear from citizens about the exhibit.

“Other communities have chosen to join the 21st century and chosen to close similar exhibits,” Miller said. “At this point, I have an open mind, but I have no question about the love people have for it.”

Watson Park

At Watson Park, the city hopes to reduce operating costs.

The park at 3022 S. McLean Blvd., near 31st Street South, operates at a loss annually. It contains a 40-acre lake for fishing, pedal boats, pony rides, an 18-hole miniature golf course, a miniature train ride and a yellow brick road that leads to the concessions house. Admission to the park is free; the rides and rentals are $2 to $2.50 per person.

Kupper said the city needs to explore questions such as whether a government should provide those kinds of amusements.

“Is there a less taxpayer-supported way to provide those same types of amenities at Watson Park?” he said.

Or could an outside concessionaire operate the amenities, as long as ticket prices remain affordable?

“We could probably raise the fees here and there, not significantly. But we want to evaluate that as part of the whole restructuring,” Kupper said. “What is sustainable? What makes sense in our economic times? We’ll look at the whole gamut.

“We don’t have a major amusement park currently in Wichita. Is that our function? That’s the first thing that needs to be done.”

Many Wichitans have grown up going to Watson Park.

“At the last town hall presentation of the budget, we got a lot of great feedback through social media on Watson Park, a lot of positive feedback,” Kupper said.

One problem is that the engine of the miniature train is 30 years old and on its last legs. The tracks were replaced in 2006, but the locomotive needs to be replaced at a cost the city estimates at $175,000.

The park took in $30,000 in ticket sales last year, meaning it would take five or six years to recoup the cost of a new engine, Kupper said.

Help may be on the way. The Wichita Parks Foundation, created about a year ago to raise money to supplement the city’s struggling parks budget and help with parks projects, has started a campaign for a new engine and a new train.

Brent Thomas, a landscape architect in Wichita and secretary of the foundation, said the foundation has been contacting vendors to find out costs. Estimates for a new engine range from $100,000 to $120,000. Adding cars would raise the cost of an entire new train to $200,000 to $250,000.

They also could identify stop-gap measures just to keep the train running rather than replacing all of it, he said.

The foundation is trying to identify other community groups that might help and is putting together fundraisers, Thomas said. It also is reaching out through its website, wichitaparksfoundation.org, and social media.

“There’s a lot of sentimental attachment to that train,” Thomas said. “A lot of folks have ridden that over the years.”

CityArts

By raising fees for CityArts programming to offset costs, the city hopes to recover $60,000 in 2014 and $130,000 in 2015.

CityArts offers a variety of classes at its Old Town facility, such as painting, drawing, ceramics, silversmithing and carving. The activities recovered about 39 percent of their costs in 2012. Expenditures of $560,000 generated about $218,000 in revenue from class fees and supplies, said John D’Angelo, manager of the city’s Division of Arts and Cultural Services.

Staff members have been challenged to increase cost recovery to 50 percent by 2015.

Fees will be adjusted under guidelines in Layton’s budget, with programs that benefit the wider community costing less than those that benefit fewer people.

CityArts regularly evaluates its fees, D’Angelo said, but it hasn’t done so based on the new guidelines in the budget.

“In our preliminary look at our stuff, I think we line up pretty good,” D’Angelo said. “The real question is, how much growth do we have in fees and in which of those areas?”

An eight-week ceramics class is $130 for adults, for example.

D’Angelo said he is reviewing fees in adult classes, youth classes and outreach programs to try to reach the target numbers. Free and minimal-cost programs, such as outreach programs with the schools and special-needs programs, will be reviewed as well.

“We’re going to look at it all,” D’Angelo said. “I don’t anticipate those areas being impacted as much. It’s going to be the adult programming that’s looked at the hardest.”

The city will look at peer arts centers, such as the Wichita Center for the Arts, to compare class fees to ensure it is charging what the market will bear, he said.

In addition to fee increases, the arts staff will look at increasing the minimum number of students required to make classes successful and re-evaluate the programs and how they are delivered, including the potential of using downloadable content.

It also will look at the total arts budget and evaluate the cost of other programming – such as gallery crawls – and the gift shop.

“If the classes have to support those other services, then we may have to look at those other services and say, ‘Can we do those any longer because we don’t have the revenue streams to support those?’” D’Angelo said.

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