Photo by A Culinary (Photo) Journal on Flickr.

The National Zoo plans to close its popular Kids’ Farm this summer because of budget cuts. Instead of hastily shutting down a popular educational venue, the Zoo could pay for it by increasing parking revenue by just 10 percent through the recommendations of its own reports.

The Kids’ Farm is very popular. Unofficial estimates by the zoo calculate that almost 30% of zoo visitors enjoy the Kids’ Farm annually. Given that 2.3 million people visited the zoo in 2010, this translates into 600,000 patrons. That’s about the same attendance as the Hirshhorn Museum.

The Smithsonian itself has written reports on the need to improve the zoo’s parking management. Parking lots frequently fill up in peak months, forcing families with cars packed with kids to abandon zoo trips on beautiful spring days.

Though closing the Kids’ Farm would save the zoo $250,000 per year, the zoo would also lose the food, gift and parking revenue from families that have lost their favorite exhibit. When promoting the zoo as a venue for corporate and family events, the zoo touts the Picnic Pavilion’s proximity to the Kids’ Farm and even shows a farm animal photo. Clearly the Kids’ Farm is a major attraction and revenue generator for the zoo.

Here is how the parking lot could save the Kids’ Farm.

Although many visitors receive free parking as Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) members, parking is big business for the zoo. FONZ, which manages zoo parking and concessions, collected nearly $2.6 million in parking revenue according to its 2008 tax filing. Assuming a typical daily cost of $16, over 161,000 drivers paid to park at the zoo that year.

Payments for zoo parking produce more revenue than FONZ memberships, member classes, and group tours combined. Proper management of this revenue stream enables FONZ to support its own operations and its annual cash grant of over $1.7 million to the National Zoo.

The National Zoo Deputy Director, recognizing how the zoo relies on FONZ, asked the Smithsonian’s Inspector General to evaluate FONZ’s revenue operations “to determine whether FONZ is managing the Zoo’s revenue operations in the most efficient and profitable manner.”

In August 2007, the IG made 16 recommendations “to strengthen FONZ’s revenue operations” and restricting the free parking benefit was one of them.

OIG identified groups that received free parking: zoo employees; FONZ employees, members and volunteers; vendors; and special event guests. The report found that “up to 30 percent of the vehicles parked in the Zoo lots [900 spaces] did not pay parking fees,” and that “free employee parking at the Zoo should be restricted.”

Currently, free parking is the first item listed under Benefits of Volunteering with FONZ. Unfortunately, there are no programs like transit benefits or carpools listed to help minimize volunteer parking during peak periods when visitors may abandon their trips due to full parking lots.

The OIG reviewed the FONZ benefits by noting, “In comparison to its peers, about 40,000 FONZ members enjoy the lowest annual household membership dues, do not pay admission, and receive unlimited free parking.”

As a proud FONZ member, I currently enjoy FONZ benefits including free parking and animal crackers for the kids.

OIG suggested some minor modification to the free parking benefits during peak periods:

Offering unlimited free parking during the off-peak months and limiting free parking to perhaps one or two visits during peak months (with reduced rate parking for additional visits) would be a good way to provide a valued member benefit while also increasing parking revenues.

These suggestions would retain nearly all of the FONZ member benefits by only adjusting parking benefits during peak periods. Lowering the likelihood of full parking lots during peak periods benefits all zoogoers. Nobody likes to skip a zoo trip because there was nowhere to park.

Since the 2007 report, maximum parking rates have increased to $20 per day. Signs at the zoo indicate that member free parking is now limited to three hours, yet the member page still promotes all-day free parking.

The National Zoo Facilities Master Plan (2008) reiterates the need to limit employee parking. It recommends that the zoo explore “satellite/partnership” locations for employee parking. This would free spaces for visitors, many of whom pay for parking, thereby increasing parking revenue.

Saving the Kids’ Farm is not impossible. In fact, there’s already a Facebook Group advocating on its behalf. The zoo states that it “would need to find a generous sponsor who could provide a revenue stream of approximately $250,000 per year.”

With much of the parking located near the Kids’ Farm, the zoo could even legitimately add signs noting that the parking changes saved the Kids’ Farm.

Full parking lots disappoint visitors. A closed Kids’ Farm will disappoint visitors. The National Zoo can solve both of these problems by promptly acting on its own parking observations. There is no need to send our cows, pigs, goats and donkeys out to pasture for the sake of free parking.

Mitch Wander first arrived in Washington, DC over 30 years ago as a US House of Representatives page while in high school. An avid promoter of DC living, Mitch has lived in wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. He and his wife are proud DC Public School parents. He serves as an officer in the US Army Reserve.