I have been a Chicago Botanic Garden member for decades. But I was disappointed recently when I received the Garden’s 2022-23 membership renewal mailing asking for a 30% increase in its Plus One membership category. A membership at this level was $99 in 2021 and is now $129 for a year.
Unfortunately, we’ve all been burdened by the inflation-fueling increases from corporate America for everything from gas to food to housing. I did not expect the Garden, a traditionally family-friendly organization, to also be adding to the inflation burden with such a hefty percentage increase.
With a budget of $49 million and a $6 million surplus in 2021, it’s hard to see why the increase is needed. The Garden’s annual report states, “raised revenue in 2021 totaled $14.9 million, a 30% increase over 2020.” Even during the pandemic there was very little downturn in revenue.
Being owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve District, which charges nothing to walk their grounds and enjoy nature, the Garden should provide an experience that is economical enough for all to enjoy. The Forest Preserve District tax support provides one-third of the Garden’s annual operating budget.
In addition, the previous atmosphere of welcome at the Garden has changed. Now there are multiple layers of check-points where first your car pass is checked and then at the building entrance your membership pass is checked and any extra attendees charged, unlike in the past. It creates an atmosphere of grasping for money.
In a time when the Garden is touting its efforts to improve diversity and equity at all levels, including membership, a 30% fee increase makes it difficult for many families and seniors on fixed incomes to visit the Garden. The few free days in warm months have visitor limits as well. Enjoying nature at the Garden should not be an exclusive or privileged experience.