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Group puts pressure on to save aquarium

The City Council will vote Wednesday whether to delay closure for a year.

By Judy Lin / The Detroit News
Max Ortiz / The Detroit News

Tasia Lynch of Livonia with children John, 11, Fia, 8, and niece Mira Dbouk, 9, walk out of Belle Isle Aquarium, which the city has proposed closing in March to fill a budget hole.

What's next

Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson has drafted a resolution granting community and philanthropic groups one year to identify other sources of funding and the establishment of an endowment. City Council could vote as early as Wednesday.

Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium has requested a meeting with the mayor.

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DETROIT -- Fish enthusiasts pleaded Monday for a reprieve for the 101-year-old Belle Isle Aquarium, arguing that cost of operating it is a small price to pay for preserving the educational and cultural institution.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's administration has decided to close the aquarium in March to save about $500,000 toward $94 million in cuts he has to make to balance this year's budget.

"This is a legacy from our grandparents and we have a moral obligation in supporting this institution for our grandchildren," said Kathleen Alan, 45, of Ferndale, who helped start Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium after the city announced the closing last month. She said the building, designed by famed architect Albert Kahn, is the type of attraction the city needs to showcase during next year's Super Bowl XL.

Councilmember JoAnn Watson said she'll introduce a resolution Wednesday that would grant community and philanthropic groups one year to find alternative funding, including an endowment, to sustain it. The City Council could vote as early as Wednesday.

The debate highlights the challenge Detroit faces in cutting its budget: For virtually every program in which cuts are proposed, there's a constituency willing to fight for it. In this case, it's an aging aquarium where attendance has fallen by 35 percent in the last four years alone.

If the City Council grants a stay, some city officials wondered how the city will keep it running.

"While you deliberate, you spend the money the city doesn't have," said Recreation Director Charles Beckham.

The zoo department says the city could save the $500,000 annually in operating expenses, plus millions of dollars more that are needed to keep the building safe and up to code. Currently, the aquarium has roof problems and is not in compliance with the American with Disabilities Act.

Zoo director Ron Kagan says he's willing to discuss keeping it open with the help of private support.Kagan said he was encouraged by aquarium support because attendance has fallen at both the zoo and aquarium in recent years. Dozens attended the meeting.

Last year, 56,000 people visited Belle Isle Aquarium, a dramatic drop from 86,000 in 2000.

At the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak, attendance fell to 1 million from 1.4 million in 2000.

Some supporters accused the city of favoring the zoo over the aquarium, but Kagan said the entire department has been affected by budget cuts.

"We place pride in that wonderful historic building and it's unfortunate that people have misinterpreted our desire," he said.

Alan and nearly 2,000 people who signed an online petition in support of keeping the aquarium open will have the challenge of raising $500,000 if a year extension is granted. But members say that while they do not have specific plans, they feel confident they can establish a nonprofit organization to find the money.

"People will step up to the plate and they'll come through," said Thomas A Wilson Jr., a board member of Friends of Belle Isle, another group that supports the island park. "That aquarium will be saved."

Ruth Glancy, chairwoman and president of the Detroit Zoological Society, which raises money for the Detroit Zoological Institute, said she hopes money will be filtered through the society. When individuals and groups donate to the society, they can designate which of the institute's three operations -- the zoo, the aquarium, or the nature center -- receives the money.

"The society already has an endowment," Glancy said. "I don't know why you would start another organization. It's best to set up an organization under the umbrella of the society and designate money for the aquarium."

During Monday's hearing, Alan and others questioned why the city felt a need to close the aquarium when the city has gone through hard times before. While the city is grappling with a $94 million deficit from last fiscal year, the city operates on a $1.9 billion budget.

One supporter quoted former Mayor Coleman Young by saying, "You don't give away the jewels for the price of polishing it."

Located on the southwest side of Belle Isle, the aquarium has 4,000 creatures, including two species -- the golden sawfin goodeid and the pinstripe damba -- on the endangered list. So far, 70 creatures have been relocated to the zoo, Kagan said.

Councilwoman Sharon McPhail suggested that the City Council should consider filing an injunction to stop the transfer of all the creatures and even floated the idea of suing the city to keep the aquarium open.

That idea is not new. When the city decided to close the zoo at Belle Isle, City Council sued and lost.

Stephen Goodfellow of Highland Park says he takes his four-year-old son there to learn about fish. Goodfellow created a Web site for Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium called

You can reach Judy Lin at (313) 222-2072 or