Charging a fee sends the message that Olbrich isn't for everyone.
In last week's Isthmus, Ald. David Ahrens laid out a plan to raise more revenue for the city of Madison: Charge admission to Olbrich Botanical Gardens for non-city residents.
Ahrens only wants to charge them $5 per person above the age of 12. But the fee would send a bad message to surrounding communities. It goes against what I believe is the heart and soul of the city. Charging a fee, even a small one, sends the message that Olbrich's beauty, its knowledge and its nature aren't for everyone.
Of course, free admission to Olbrich isn't truly free. It's largely paid for by city taxes at a time when tax dollars are being stretched to the limit. As a Madison homeowner, I appreciate that Ahrens and others are coming up with creative solutions. Mayor Paul Soglin, Ahrens and the rest of the city council have to make tremendously difficult choices while putting together a city budget. Wisconsin's sluggish economic recovery plus a combination of foolhardy tax cuts and tight revenue caps from the state Legislature make it hard for municipalities to balance their budgets.
It is a challenge just to maintain our basic public works. Plowing this city isn't cheap. While our police officers do a lot of volunteer work, cops prefer it when they get a paycheck at some point.
But police and fire protection aren't the limits of what this city can and should provide. Art, learning, enrichment -- these are important public works too. A city needs spaces like Olbrich Gardens to rally around, something to be proud of. Otherwise, our town is just a collection of buildings with boring architecture and really terrible construction traffic.
As a kid from rural Wisconsin, I was always impressed with how much stuff there was to do in Madison. It is what made me want to go to college here. Only in retrospect do I realize how many of those activities and events were free to attend thanks to the city, the university and Madison's philanthropic community. My parents took my three stepbrothers and me on some of the most enriching afternoons of my life simply because it was a cheap way to keep us occupied for a few hours.
The city of Madison is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. It is easy to represent Madison's problems -- gross inequity and achievement gaps that were ignored for far too long. But the fact that we have turned so much of this city into a giant classroom represents us at our best. It provides me with hope for what we can be.
Free admission to a garden might not sound like a whole lot, but it is hard to predict what will inspire a child. How many future botanists will discover their passion walking through Olbrich or the UW Arboretum? How many of tomorrow's biologists and veterinarians will beg to go to Henry Vilas Zoo one more time? What innovations will be discovered by the students who pick up a microscope for the first time at UW-Madison's Institutes for Discovery? How many parents will panic when they learn their child has decided to major in dance after being inspired by the Overture's Kids in the Rotunda series?
Madison's citywide classroom should be a point of pride for the region. Even if we charge fees to Olbrich only to nonresidents, we'll be cutting off access to some. Crossing over the Madison city limits doesn't magically make a family affluent. When imagining that metro area, we often think the old model of "city = poor people, suburbs = white flight." However, in the 21st century, that model doesn't apply anymore. The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch has risen across Dane County school districts.
So many doors are open or closed to young people based on their family's financial resources. We can't change that fact, but it doesn't mean we need to shut another door for our middle and high school students.
Besides, we already get a lot from the rest of the state. Wisconsinites send their tax dollars to Madison and take out massive loans to go to college here, and part of their insurance premium goes to pay for Epic software. They regularly patronize our bars and restaurants when attending a game or a concert. We can at least let those folks walk through our garden.
We can put in some more donation boxes; we can do another membership drive. But we should continue to freely share one of our city's proudest treasures. It is who we are. It is what Madison is.