Is pricey preserve worth cost of admission?

The Springs Preserve has some interesting stuff to see and do. But not enough to justify an entry fee of $14.95 for Nevada residents, $18.95 if you live out of state.

It’s understandable that there should be some kind of entry fee. The Springs Preserve is a nonprofit extension of the Las Vegas Valley Water District. It cost $250 million to build, and a substantial budget is required to staff and maintain the facilities. And local taxpayers will appreciate the preserve’s business plan calling for a break-even operation.

“All funds brought in will be funneled directly back into the project for the purpose of keeping the facility operating and maintained for generations,” says Jesse Davis, Springs Preserve spokesman.

But a $14.95 ticket could do more harm than good to that business plan. A fair number of locals won’t be willing to pay that much for what basically amounts to an educational experience. There are no roller coasters at the Springs Preserve.

According to Davis, in just the first week and a half, more than 5,200 people paid for annual individual and family passes. He says this suggests strong support for the Springs Preserve.

A family pass is a tremendous deal. It’s $75 for family members to enter the preserve as many times as they want in a year. Compare this with buying one-time admission tickets. I visited the Springs Preserve last weekend with my wife and two teenagers. If we had purchased one-time tickets, we would have paid $43.80. So, if four of us go to the preserve twice in a year, it would cost $87.60.

Of course we bought an annual family pass. I have heard from other residents that they bought family passes for the same reason.

I personally found much to like on my visit, but I also was disappointed by some aspects of the place. As we toured the grounds and facilities, I kept asking myself: Would I have any reason to repeat this experience? I will come back for some things, but for others, once is enough.

I really hate to be glum about the Springs Preserve. Because, from its inception, I’ve been a big supporter.

The Springs Preserve has a lot to offer and a ton of potential. It is roughly on the site of Big Spring, a watery gathering place for American Indians as well as a rest stop for frontiersmen traveling through the valley long before any pioneers settled here. In the fall, schoolteachers and scout leaders no doubt will be escorting busloads of kids to this 180-acre enclave to learn about local history and desert living.

When the new Nevada State Museum opens at the Springs Preserve in 2009, it is likely to enhance the experience. As a history buff and writer, I am excited to see what museum curators will do with this large new space.

But until then, the Springs Preserve comes up a little short, at least for $14.95. The Ori-Gen Experience, stocked with educational video games, historical films and a clever flash flood show, is the highlight. (I did pause to question the wisdom of encouraging kids to play giant slot machines.)

The Desert Living Center’s Sustainability Gallery, showcasing recycling and green living products, is moderately interesting, but I can’t imagine making regular return visits. The relocated Desert Demonstration Garden is a pale comparison to its more mature predecessor, which was very popular with local green thumbs.

It’s worth noting that we Las Vegans paid for a majority of the Springs Preserve project through our water bills. It’s a little irritating to be asked to fork over more money to see what ever-rising water rates got us. My initial thought was that the Springs Preserve should be free. After all, admirers and publicists have compared it with New York’s Central Park. Central Park is free. So are dozens of parks, big and small, across the Las Vegas Valley.

Water district officials note that it is, in fact, free to roam the Springs Preserve trails. But let’s not be silly. It didn’t cost $250 million to stake out some trails. The money is in the buildings and attractions. And that’s what most people come for.

A look at ticket prices at two of the most amazing and respected museums in the country is revealing. The Field Museum in Chicago: $12 general admission, $10 for Chicago residents. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry: $11 general admission, $10 for Chicago residents. The Getty Center in Los Angeles is free, but parking is $8.

To be practical, the water district needs to charge something to keep out the ne’er-do-wells, who surely would be drawn to the preserve. So, how about a reasonable charge? How about $5 for adults, $3 for kids? Make up for the reduced revenue with volume.

I don’t want to discourage residents from checking out the Springs Preserve. Everybody ought to dedicate an afternoon or evening to it and judge for themselves. Las Vegas benefits from its residents gaining a greater knowledge of and appreciation for the community’s rich history. We also profit from expanding our understanding of the importance of sustainable living.

The fundamental question is this: What is the goal of the Springs Preserve? My belief, as a resident, commentator and water ratepayer, is it should educate people about Las Vegas and enhance the sense of community here. If it encourages more residents to care about the future of this community, and to take steps to be more responsible citizens, it will have done a great service.

But if you simply can’t afford a family trip to the Springs Preserve, I understand. Even the annual pass is beyond the reach of some families.

If the water district refuses to lower the admission price, I have an alternative option: scheduled free days. This is a common practice among museums and other such facilities across the country that want everyone to have a chance to enjoy what they have to offer — and perhaps become paying customers later. The Louvre in Paris, arguably the world’s greatest art museum, is free the first Sunday of every month. And it’s always free for kids.

Geoff Schumacher ( is Stephens Media’s director of community publications. He is the author of “Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas” and, coming in February, “Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue.” His column appears Sunday.

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