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Art museum, zoo don"t back admission fee

State Senate has given preliminary OK to removing ban on charges.

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Although an effort to allow nonresident admission fees at Zoo-Museum District facilities has gained some traction, no one should worry about having to pay to get in anytime soon.

Officials of the attractions affected — the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis Science Center and St. Louis Art Museum — have either rejected or been noncommittal to the idea of charging nondistrict residents. Last week the state Senate gave preliminary approval to removing the ban on admission charges that has been in place since the St. Louis-St. Louis County district was set up decades ago.

Zoo and art museum officials say flatly they won't impose the charges even if the bill passes. The history museum and science center may consider the idea, but there are no immediate plans to impose fees on visitors from outside the district.

"We are committed to remaining free to all, including nonresidents of St. Louis and St. Louis County, consistent with the language of the original legislation," zoo president Jeffrey Bonner said.

Art museum spokeswoman Jennifer Stoffel said the museum also has no intention of charging admission.

"It's a critical part of our mission," she said of free access.

Most supportive of possibly charging was Robert Archibald, the history museum president.

"It's great to have that option," he said of the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City.

However, he said officials would weigh how a nonresident admission charge would affect what he says should be the long-term objective of expanding district boundaries as more people and businesses move to outer suburban counties.

"Does this help or hinder the long-term effort?" he said. "Do you win friends?"

Now the district is funded by a property tax in the city and St. Louis County. The facilities also get funding from memberships, charges for certain attractions and donations.

Also supportive of considering fees — as he was when the issue came up in last year's legislative session — is Ben Uchitelle, a member of the district board and a former mayor of Clayton.

"I think it makes good sense," he said. But the full board again hasn't taken a position.

Science center president Doug King said the organization should take a look at nonresident fees if Bray's measure passes. He added, though, that it's "way premature" to say it would ever happen.

The fifth district institution, the Missouri Botanical Garden, already is allowed to charge admission to anyone and does so.

Bray's measure would allow admission fees for nonresidents if approved both by an institution's board and the separate board overseeing the entire district.

The fee could be tailored to exempt people or groups. That would allow a facility to exempt nonresidents who buy memberships or to only charge tourists from outside the St. Louis area if they wished.

"It's very permissive," Bray said.

Bray last week got the Senate to tack her measure onto a lengthy bill dealing with a laundry list of local government issues from across Missouri.

The bill still has a long way to go to win passage in this year's legislative session.

Bray said she's disappointed at the lack of overt support from the institutions.

"It just gives them an option in the future if they ever need it," she said.

She said she'd continue pushing the bill this year because of positive feedback she's gotten from voters in her area.

Visitors interviewed outside the zoo this week had various opinions.

Ryan Dolnick, 39, of Town and Country, liked the idea of making nonresidents pay an admission fee.

"I'd be in favor of it so they don't raise our taxes," he said.

Another backer was Debbie Travis, 52, of Labadie. "I'm a Franklin County resident and I'm all for it, because my taxes don't support it," she said.

Bonnie Kowalski, 63, a former Granite City resident now living in Richmond, Va., said she wouldn't object to paying "a nominal amount" to get in.

Opposed to admission fees was Mike Lampe, 50, of High Ridge. "I'm from Jefferson County and I'd have to pay," he explained.

Kate Burgauer, 26, of Ozark, Ill., said she'd be reluctant to visit the zoo and the museums as often if she faced admission charges.

"St. Louis is an affordable place for me to visit because everything's free," she said.

Charles Upton, 84, of Calverton Park in North County, also cited tourism in opposing admission fees.

"It brings people in here," he said. "People come here and they stay in a motel and they eat. They spend money."

Last year Bray introduced a more far-reaching measure to allow outlying counties to join the district and pass a property tax to help fund it. That bill would have given county governing boards authority to schedule an election in their areas and would have allowed a nonresident charge.

Later, to try to cut opposition, Bray revised her bill to just allow the nonresident fees. That's what she reintroduced this year.

Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, opposed Bray's original bill last year but is undecided about this year's version because it's "a softer stance."

"Ideally, I don't want my constituents to have to pay for something they're not currently paying for," Rupp said. "I also understand that people living in that district are supporting that."

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