FOBIA  Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium

- Dedicated to the continuity and preservation of the Belle Isle Aquarium -

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The decision to close the 101-year-old aquarium on
Belle Isle came after much thought and consideration.
The City of Detroit announced several measures to
reduce a $230 million deficit. The closing of the
aquarium will save the City over $530,000 in operating
expense annually and millions in capital needed to
keep the old building suitable for animals and
In a way, City residents/taxpayers have voted with
their attendance. Attendance at the Belle Isle
Aquarium has continued to decline despite new exhibits
like sea horses and salt water fish, and several
marketing and public relations efforts. In 1995
attendance at the Aquarium was just 113,000 visitors.
In 2000, it was 86,000 and in 2004, 56,000 visitors.
The Belle Isle Aquarium has been extensively marketed.
Some of the marketing and public relations efforts are
listed here:
Belle Isle Aquarium (BIA) information and section on
the website,
Belle Isle Aquarium brochure updated and distributed
annually to all rest areas, museums, cultural
attractions, hotels and visitor centers throughout
Distribute BIA flyers in all City of Detroit employee
paychecks and to all people visiting the Recreation
Departments inquiring about picnics on Belle Isle.
PSA's with Fox 2 to promote 'Children Free Days' (ran
for 12 weeks, five times a day) each year.
Press releases sent out as new animals arrived and
exhibits opened.
Live television shots with Fox2 News Morning and Ron
Kagan each winter.
From 2000 to 2002, did Media One television shoots
about numerous animals which ran twice a week.
Provided Comcast cable with event and new animal
information for weekly magazine show, called Homework
Every year the Aquarium celebrated Senior Day which is
supported by a press release. This event offered free
admission for all seniors and their caretakers
Bamboo Shark births made national news including
MSNBC, CNN, the Jay Leno Show and Regis and Kelly,
just to name a few.
Fox2 did a "Where in the World is Lee" promotion with
Sponge Bob in November 2004.
Listing in the Detroit Free Press on the Aquarium
every weekend.
100th Birthday celebration at the Aquarium in Aug.
2004 in partnership with the Belle Isle Botanical
Society and the Detroit Recreation Department.
Hundreds of media stories, coverage and live shots
were arranged.
Major promotion in 2004 with Coca-Cola tying into the
movie Shark Tale promoting the Belle Isle Aquarium on
all in store point-of-sale displays in Michigan Kroger
stores and was supported with radio advertisements.
Significant challenges are associated with looming
capital costs to properly maintain the facilities and
antiquated infrastructure for the animals and the
visitors. This includes lack of ADA compliancy,
roofing problems and more.
Over $600,000 was spent three years ago to repair the
flooring infrastructure.
The Belle Isle Aquarium costs City of Detroit
Taxpayers roughly $10 per every visitor.
Since the Belle Isle Aquarium is over 100 years old,
naturally no space for retail or concession is
available. Further operation of the facility with
significant capital investment might stabilize the
physical structure for other use of this intriguing
but small building. Several areas do need major
The building is quite unique and beautiful and the
hope is that it can be repurposed in some sort of
museum format. However technology and exhibitory needs
especially for expensive life support systems are
vastly different than they were 100 years ago.
Detroit needs a much larger and modern facility as
soon as possible; one that will offer the community as
well as tourists great experiences and economic
benefits for Detroit. Studies show that a
state-of-the-art riverfront aquarium will attract one
million visitors annually and generate $100 million in
economic impact annually.
A new 150,000 sq. ft. facility could feature
walk-through aquatic exhibits, like the Detroit Zoo's
Arctic Ring of Life, as well as sea lions, sharks,
sting rays, walrus, sea turtles, and many other
aquatic wonders not possible at the 10,000 sq. ft,
101-year-old Belle Isle Aquarium.
The Detroit Zoological Institute continues to move
forward with the development of the new Belle Isle
Nature Zoo (BINZ). Several freshwater aquariums will
be included along with signature exhibits of black
bears, cougars, deer, and other native Michigan
wildlife. Some BINZ programming for the public and
community groups has already begun and the first
construction phase of new exhibits will open this
fall. When finished, the Belle Isle Nature Zoo will
afford year-round unique educational opportunities for
Detroit teachers, schoolchildren, their parents,
families, and the community.
The animals at the Belle Isle Aquarium will go to
other Zoos and Aquariums.
Details regarding the closing date will be announced


Rebuttals to DZI “Reasons for closing BIA” response sheet



1)       The City of Detroit Budget clearly shows that the amount budgeted for BIA operations was, in fact, approximately $530,000.  That figure, however, does not include the $145,000 in revenue generated by the Aquarium in the last year.  This leaves a net tax cost to the city of $385,000.


2)       Attendance has fallen in recent years at BIA.  Please see the below examples as to why this may be.  The attendance has remained nearly identical the last two years in a row, halting the downward slide in patronage.  More significantly, revenue has risen by over 6% last year, and over 9% again this year.  Last year alone, patronage at the main zoo campus in Royal Oak fell nearly 7%.  Patronage at the DZI campus peaked at approximately 1.4 million visitors four years ago, and is currently approximately 1 million.  This is an approximately 30% drop in four years, despite the addition of many new huge exhibits (Arctic Ring of Life, National Amphibian Conservation Center, etc), while the Director’s own figures show a drop at BIA of approximately 35% in the same time period.


3)       The marketing efforts for BIA have been laughable at best.  Below are responses to each of the Director’s claims of marketing.


a)       The only mention of BIA on the Zoo’s website is through a series of menu selections which ultimately reveals the Aquarium’s location, hours of operation, and admission fees.  No other information about exhibits, history, programs, etc. is provided AT ALL.  This can easily be verified by visiting

b)       Brochures are, in fact, distributed as noted.  This may account for the diverse patronage base.  Beginning August 18, 2003, staff at the Aquarium began asking patrons to voluntarily sign a large bulletin board indicating where they were visiting from.  In the 18 months since this started, the Aquarium has been visited by citizens of 65 of Michigan’s 83 counties.  They have had visitors from 49 states and 3 territories of the United States (only North Dakota is missing).  Perhaps most amazing is that visitors from 99 different foreign nations have passed through our doors.  This represents more than half of all nations in the world. 

c)       We cannot verify the distribution of flyers to Detroit employees as a whole.  However, any Zoo employee will tell you that they have NEVER received such flyers in their checks.  We must presume that Detroit City employees are, by far, the most likely to know that there is an Aquarium on Belle Isle.  Why would you advertise the facility to them?

d)       The PSAs referred to on Fox2 are for all zoo facilities, not BIA specifically.  In fact, they may have left BIA out entirely (see below).

e)       The DZI website contains an archive which has all press releases since January 2001.  In that time, the zoo has issued 190 press releases.  Only two were related to the Aquarium exclusively, one for shark births, the other for the permanent closing of the Aquarium.  Any other mention of the BIA is incidental to information about the Zoo.  Even the standardized information attached to the end of EVERY press release mentions not one word about BIA, even though it specifies, history, admission, and hours of operation for the main Zoo in Royal Oak.  There were NO press releases for new exhibits or new animal arrivals, as claimed by Dr. Kagan.  Again, this can be easily verified by visiting the DZI official website.  As a post script, both of these press releases saw significant spikes in attendance.

f)        An average of one Fox 2 live TV shoot is done at the aquarium annually.  These last approximately 90 seconds and occur between 7-8 a.m.  The other 11 monthly shots occur at the Royal Oak campus.

g)       The Media One shoots are a mystery.  No one associated with BIA has any knowledge of these events, and certainly they were not purposely shot at BIA.  We suspect they may be related to animals at Royal Oak. The same can be said for the Comcast promotions. 

h)       In the past, BIA was part of the Senior Free Day program.   However, for the past several years, this promotion was carried on at the Zoo in Royal Oak, but specifically abandoned at BIA, as requested by Royal Oak staff.

i)         The bamboo shark births were a major news story worldwide, and they did cause a temporary increase in attendance.  However, news stories are transient;  there’s always something new tomorrow.  This is an example of free press, NOT an advertising effort.  By the way, the television coverage featured Dr. Kagan as spokesperson, not the curator of the Belle Isle Aquarium, a person far more capable of fielding the specialized scientific responses required in the interviews.  This was one of only two press releases in at least 5 years from the Zoo.

j)         The Fox 2 “Where in the World is Lee” promotion did occur.  This involves a series of clues given out by a television personality.  If a viewer guesses the location of the television shoot, they receive a prize, in this case, free movie tickets.  This is clearly a promotion for the movie company, NOT the Aquarium.  In fact, the movie tickets were all given out BEFORE the Aquarium even opened for the day!

k)       There is a listing for the Aquarium in the Free Press every week.  It is in a section which lists various activities occurring in the upcoming week.  There are hundreds of items listed on the page, and no information about special events or exhibits is given, just hours of operation and admission fees.

l)         No planning or promotion was made for any event relating to the 100th anniversary until  approximately 3 weeks before the date, despite persistent requests from BIA staff.  At this time, it was decided that the Aquarium would “piggy-back” on the extensive promotion done for the Conservatory, which was also celebrating its 100th anniversary.  As a result, very little press was given to the Aquarium, and the anniversary went virtually unnoticed.  The Conservatory had pony rides, food vendors, musical acts, and souvenirs available near the Conservatory.  The Zoo sent a small merchandise cart featuring hastily prepared, simple Belle Isle Aquarium shirts (devoid of any mention of the anniversary) and merchandise such as coffee mugs which advertised the Zoo in Royal Oak only.  Contrastingly, the Detroit Zoo recently celebrated it’s 75th anniversary with tremendous promotion and events which spanned an entire year.  A similar promotion was done for the Zoo’s 70th anniversary.

m)      The Coca-Cola/Shark Tale promotion was featured in metro grocery stores.  A large cardboard stand-up featuring Coca-Cola and Disney’s Shark Tale artwork was displayed.  On it, a small text piece promoted the BIA as an aquatic-themed attraction, and offered a discount admission to BIA.  The area devoted to this was quite small.  The reason for this is that the promotion was aimed squarely at Coca-Cola and the Shark Tale movie, not BIA.  This would hardly be called this a ‘major partnership’.  No further promotions have occurred with either company subsequently.

n) There are significant looming capital costs associated with the
building. The reason for this is an appalling lack of support in the past
two decades. The ADA compliancy issues are actually remarkably easy to
remedy, and are far less difficult than the ADA compliancy issues relating
to the Royal Oak facility, which also must be remedied, by law. The roofing
problem does exist, and has exited for at least ten years. A complete
re-roofing will need to be done in the near future, at an estimated cost of
$500,000. This year, the zoo allocated $2,000 to repair roof leaks. Hardly
the kind of support the facility should be receiving. Traditionally, the
Detroit Zoological Society has been used as a fundraising resource to assist
in paying for capital improvements. In fact, in the past 10 years, the
Society has raised more than $38 million dollars devoted exclusively to
capitol projects for the Royal Oak campus. A minute fraction has been spent
on the Aquarium. We feel that many donors could be found that would be
willing to invest significant funds in preserving and restoring the
Aquarium, but until very recently, the Director of DZI was also the Director
of the Society, so he had tremendous influence determining what projects
should be considered for support by the Society.

o)       It is true that $600,000 was spent three years ago.  This not only stabilized the floor structure for at least 20 additional years, but also included painting, and lead paint/asbestos abatement in the entire building.

p)       The BIA does not cost the city $10 per visitor in subsidies as stated.  That figure assumes a net tax cost of $530,000 on approximately 55,000 visitors.  Using the ACTUAL subsidy figures quoted in  above (easily verifiable on City budget documents), the actual amount is about $7.  This compares to approximately $4 subsidy per visitor to the Royal Oak facility.  Of course, the city subsidizes all of it’s parks to the tune of millions of dollars annually.  They also subsidize libraries and museums.  That is part of making Detroit a desirable place for people to live in and visit, and it costs money to do that. 

q)       The reference to many areas of the building needing renovation is dubious, at best.  The public and off exhibit areas are more than adequate for their purpose.

r)        It is hard to imagine an alternative use for a building with walls made of glass-fronted concrete fish tanks.  The technology and exhibitry needs referred to are already in place, and are more than capable of providing top-quality care for the animal collection.  Many of these systems are less than ten years old, and the money spent on them, as well as the previously cited $600,000 for floor repairs would be totally wasted if the Aquarium closes.

s)       Detroit doesn’t “need” a new aquarium, the Director wants one.  Even if the City somehow manages to raise the capital funds estimated to be in the $100-$150 million range, how can the City possibly subsidize the estimated  $15-$20 million annual operating budget of the facility if it cannot find the desire and money to fund our current Aquarium at a tiny fraction of this amount?  Why is the city able to fund the Scripps Conservatory, at a greater tax-cost, and with more challenging building maintenance issues, which produces virtually NO revenue due to it’s free admission status?  Perhaps the administration at the Parks and Recreation Department realizes what a treasure they have. 

t)        With the closure of the Belle Isle Zoo in 2001, it was promised that a new “Belle Isle Nature Zoo” would be reborn on Belle Isle.  However, we are now more nearly four years past the closing and still have no zoo on Belle Isle for the citizens of Detroit to enjoy. It will be at least another year before any animals are present at the facility at all, and much longer (at least 4 years) before the facility is completed.  The new facility will rely partially on staffing from the Huron-Clinton Metroparks organization (there are already two staff members on duty from this organization).  Zoo administration estimates that the new facility will service approximately 100,000 to as many as 200,000 patrons, at a budgeted cost of approximately $1 million annually.  These are interesting numbers, since the now-closed Belle Isle Zoo serviced approximately 80,000 patrons, was only open six months out of the year, and cost roughly $1.3 million per year to operate.  Please note the statement “When finished, the Belle Isle Nature Zoo will afford year-round unique educational opportunities for Detroit teachers, schoolchildren, their parents, families, and the community”.   The Belle Isle Aquarium already does these things very well, and has been doing so for 101 years

u)       It is unclear yet whether or not all of the animals will find homes at other facilities.  While it may be assumed that the majority of them will, some of the animals have medical conditions which may make them undesirable to other institutions, but which do not hinder their quality of life.  Additionally, it will be very difficult to place many of the endangered fishes, and the closure of the Aquarium will almost certainly result in the extinction of at least one species.  The Belle Isle Aquarium is a leader in the conservation, husbandry, and education about our aquatic neighbors.  Each year, the American Zoological Association bestows the Bean Award for Animal Conservation as its highest award for these efforts.  The competition for this prestigious honor is intense, as most zoos and aquariums are heavily involved in conservation efforts.   The Detroit Zoological Institute has won this award on three occasions in its history.  All three Awards have been bestowed on the Belle Isle Aquarium.  This is not to make light of the conservation efforts of the Zoo in Royal Oak, which are many and varied.  However, it does indicate that the zoological community recognizes the groundbreaking conservation efforts put forth by our Aquarium.  The most recent award, in 2000, was given for work with a small Mexican fish, the golden sawfin, which is now extinct in the wild.  The Belle Isle Aquarium has worked with this species for more than thirty years.  EVERY single living example of this small but fascinating and beautiful fish can trace its lineage directly to, and only to, the Belle Isle Aquarium.  Every one in the entire world.  The Aquarium has sent  numerous examples of this fish to accredited institutions all over the country, but not one of them is able to maintain the species for more than a few months.  BIA is the last and only refuge in the world for this species.