When the new and improved Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo reopens to the public this fall after three years of construction and a pandemic-induced closure, it will bring visiting youths face-to-face with ibises, flamingoes, turtles and other denizens of the museum's eclectic animal kingdom.
The Rinconada Park museum will have new classrooms, exhibits and a "loose-in-the-zoo" area where humans can mingle with other species. It will also, however, include a feature that is ruffling some feathers among the popular museum's top supporters: an entrance fee that could be as high as $18 per person.
For the City Council, which is facing plummeting revenues and a second straight year of service cuts, the entrance fee is the surest and most sensible cost-recovery mechanism for the treasured community institution.
But for the nonprofit group Friends of the Junior Museum and Zoo, the $18 fee that the council endorsed last year and that the council's Finance Committee tentatively reaffirmed Tuesday night represents both bad business and misguided values.
Lauren Angelo, co-president of the friends group, urged the committee to reconsider the price of admission. The nonprofit has spearheaded the reconstruction of the museum and zoo, having raised $25 million in donations for the effort. Angelo said that during its fundraising effort, the nonprofit had expected the city to adopt an entrance fee between $6 and $8. More recently, it has been bracing for a $10 fee.
Now, with Palo Alto planning to set the fees at $18, Angelo believes the city is making the institution less equitable and more exclusive — much to the chagrin of the many community members who supported the new museum, which is set to open in October.
"Donors have told us that if the city opens the JMZ at $18, they will deeply regret that they donated to the JMZ initiative, they will not donate to the JMZ in the future and they will not fund future capital projects in Palo Alto," Angelo told the Finance Committee.
Kristen O'Kane, director of the Community Services Department, presented to the council a set of options for potential fees and corresponding cost-recovery levels. The staff's model suggests that with $18 tickets, the Rinconada Park museum will achieve 85% cost recovery; with $10 tickets, the city would recover just 59% of its costs.
The model does not, however, consider the possibility that higher tickets prices would result in fewer visitors. Rather, it presumes that the museum would continue to see about 185,000 visitors per year, regardless of the ticket price.
For Angelo and other critics of the city's proposal, that is a fatal flaw. If the demand plummets because tickets prices are too high, the museum will generate lower revenues than it would with tickets in the $10 range. Angelo noted that most other museums and zoos in the area charge fees well below $18, with the lone exception of the San Francisco Zoo, which costs $18 to enter.
"This is not only a question of equity," Angelo said. "To hit the projected attendance figures, the city needs more than the very affluent to buy tickets."
Vice Mayor Pat Burt, who serves on the Finance Committee, concurred and said he would oppose setting the ticket price at $18. He suggested deferring the decision on museum fees to a later date and requesting additional analysis of pricing policies.
"I'm kind of baffled that the tables the city provided assumed there is no elasticity — that there is no variability of demand depending on pricing," Burt said. "That's not the way it goes."
His two Finance Committee colleagues, Chair Alison Cormack and council member Eric Filseth, were more ambivalent about the proposed fee. The committee ultimately voted 2-1, with Burt dissenting, to move ahead with the $18 fee — at least for now.
The motion from Cormack and Filseth also specified that the committee will revisit the subject later in the budget season, when it considers the museum's funding needs in the context of all city services. At that time, the council will consider whether to spend about $900,000 to reduce the fee and subsidize the museum's operations.
"The right thing today is to keep the $18 ticket price for the moment because the plan of record is the plan of record until a new one is adopted," Filseth said.
O'Kane said Tuesday that since the council first supported the $18 fee last year, city staff have in fact reexamined the fee and have "questioned whether the (membership) range and ticket fee were too high" for the museum, which has always allowed free entry.
"We don't want to be in a situation where we're discouraging people to come because of the ticket price," O'Kane said.