Pay to pray: National Cathedral to charge admission fee in 2014

Tourists visiting the District will have to dig a little deeper into their pockets if they plan to visit the Washington National Cathedral next year.

Beginning in January, the cathedral will charge a $10 admission fee in response to a looming deficit. Children and seniors will pay $6.

Rob Sokol, the cathedral’s director of strategic programs, wrote in a memo to staffers that visitor traffic has been trending down slightly compared to last year. The average donation at the welcome desk was also down by nearly 25 percent in the first quarter of fiscal 2014, from about $4.15 per person to about $3.15 per person.

The Rev. Gary Hall, the cathedral’s dean, told The Associated Press that the decision to charge a fee was made reluctantly. But he noted that the cathedrals of Europe charge fees to help pay for upkeep.

“All we are charging for is tourism essentially,” Mr. Hall said. “We’re not charging for the essential services of the cathedral.”

Some in the cathedral’s congregation, though, have been vocal in opposing the move, Mr. Hall said. “Nobody is excited, but most people understand it.”

The church needs to generate more revenue to avoid budget deficits and to focus on raising money to fix damage from the August 2011 earthquake, Mr. Hall said. So far, the church has collected about $7 million of the for $26 million needed for repairs.

Mr. Hall told the AP that the church has cut $1.7 million from its budget through a hiring freeze, attrition, changes in vendors and a salary freeze for higher-paid employees since last year. No staff members were laid off, he said.

Mr. Sokol acknowledged that the admission fee could invoke negative reactions but insisted that it was necessary to create revenue.

“This change in entry policy has the potential to generate bad press. We will need a communication strategy to mitigate any voiced opposition raised by local constituencies,” he said. “Those already upset — mainly neighbors, clergy, and congregation members — with the installation of a suggested donation request at the door in 2011 may be even more upset when it is changed to a fixed admission.”

One disgruntled reader commented on a report on the admission charges that appeared on the blog “Anglican Ink,” saying, “Well, scratch that National Cathedral visit off the to-do list.”

Another reader commented that the new admission fee was simply too expensive saying, “Perhaps, if average giving is about $3, they should suggest $4 or $5 donation but $10? That is highway robbery!”

A task force was assembled in September to identify all possible revenue-generating strategies for the upcoming fiscal year. Cathedral staff found that by charging a $10 admission fee they could expect an additional $150,000 in fiscal 2014 and $300,000 in fiscal 2015, factoring in a 10 percent decrease in traffic.

The cathedral would also offer a $25 family discounted admission fee, including a one-year National Cathedral Association membership. Entrance to the cathedral will be free on Sundays and for all worshippers.

“We need to grow in certain areas that we don’t have the resources to do so right now,” Mr. Hall said. “If we just keep cutting and cutting and cutting … we’ll just be kind of a shrinking institution.”

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