Building Belle Isle animal pen comes after city
plans police, fire layoffs, shuts aquarium.
DETROIT -- As the city bleeds red ink and
prepares to lay off police and fire personnel, contractors
are gearing up to build a $1 million display pen for 20
European fallow deer and native Michigan animals at Belle
Isle's new nature zoo.
Zoo Director Ron Kagan said officials there had no say
in awarding the building contract, which went to a company
with no experience doing work for the zoo. That company
subcontracted the first phase of the job to a company run
by Bobby Ferguson, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's longtime
friend who also is involved in two other controversial
The new facility, which will be funded by a city bond
issue approved for the project last year by city voters,
replaces the Belle Isle zoo that was closed in 2002
because of poor attendance and meager revenues. In May,
the Kilpatrick administration also closed the 101-year-old
aquarium on the island, citing 2004 revenues of $105,000
and operating costs of $700,000.
Jim Netter grew up in Detroit and lived in the city for
much of his life. He says it's "nuts" to spend $1 million
to house deer when police layoffs are imminent.
"To spend a million dollars you need some kind of
intelligent plan," said Netter, 56, of Wayne, whose two
children live in Detroit.
"You have people who are going to get laid off and
don't know how they are going to live and pay their
bills," Netter said. "The deer can be adopted by
neighboring cities. There are other options."
Michael McBride, a park user and a member of the
Friends of Belle Isle group for more than 20 years, said
he is perplexed by the timing of the construction in light
of the city's finances and the closing of the two other
"I'm not saying this is a bad idea in the long run, but
there are more urgent problems that need immediate
attention on the island than a nature zoo," McBride said.
Among the needs he identified were upgrading the island's
other public facilities, fixing drainage problems with the
canals, and taking down and replacing a huge number of
Voters approved bond
Despite budget woes, city officials' hands are tied.
Voters approved the bond specifically for the nature zoo
in 2004, so the money can't be spent on anything else.
Detroit Building Authority officials have refused to
explain the criteria they used to select the company
awarded the contract.
At least four companies with track records of
successfully completing major zoo projects were rejected
for the Belle Isle contract. In May, the Building
Authority, whose director, Elizabeth Benson, is Mayor
Kilpatrick's cousin, selected KEO & Associates as the most
qualified of the seven companies that submitted proposals
for the job. Because the zoo contract was awarded through
the Building Authority, it did not require approval by the
KEO, owned by Chris Onwuzurike, sublet the first phase
of the work to Ferguson's Xcel Construction.
In an interview, Kagan said he did not know the name of
the contractor selected for the job. He said while zoo
officials are usually consulted in the choosing
prospective contractors, the Building Authority has the
"We usually agree with what they are doing because we
don't know the business of construction, and they do,"
However, in a May 24 letter to Benson at the Building
Authority, Kagan distanced himself from the selection of
KEO. He pointed out that of the seven companies that
submitted proposals, the authority picked an unknown
"Though we have worked directly with a few of the other
companies, the firm selected by the DBA is new to the
Institute," Kagan wrote. "As the zoological Institute was
not a formal member of the selection committee, we yield
to the Building Authority's discretion in this matter."
In his letter, Kagan also asked that Benson provide the
zoo with a copy of the evaluation criteria used to select
KEO to determine why that company was chosen over the
others. Benson has not done so.
The city's law department also denied a Freedom of
Information request from The Detroit News seeking the same
document, saying the zoo does not have any such record.
Onwuzurike said although his 11-year-old company has not
worked for the zoo before, it is experienced in doing
other work for the city on various kinds of projects.
"There was a process and we put in our bid on the RFP
(request for proposals) and were selected for the job," he
He said he put the first phase of the job out for bids
and selected Ferguson because he had the low bid of the
three companies that responded. Ferguson could not be
reached for comment.
"I was surprised to hear KEO got the job. I've never
heard of them," said Darren Murphy, vice president of
rival construction company DeMaria. "We have done quite a
bit of work at the Detroit Zoo and thought we were
competing against four or five of the other companies that
have also worked for the zoo."
Nature zoo has two phases
With architectural and engineering fees, this phase of
the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, which involves remodeling part
of the closed zoo, will cost $2 million. Those renovations
are complete and that section is open on weekends.
Kagan said the pen and infrastructure, which includes
things such as sidewalks and fencing, should be completed
for a year-end opening. The project cost was scaled back
from up to $10 million that would have included a
Yellowstone Park-style lodge.
Kagan described the facility as a hybrid between a
traditional nature center and a small zoo.
"It highlights animals of the region much more than a
normal nature center would. A normal nature center does
not have the animal care staff and background that a zoo
does," Kagan said. In addition to deer, the nature zoo
will eventually have otters, black bear, turtles, water
fowl and amphibians of the region.
Betty Stewart, a 48-year-old tool and die worker from
Southfield, grew up in Detroit and fondly remembers going
to the Belle Isle zoo on field trips as a kid. She
supports the nature zoo but thinks the facility should
charge admission to make the project pay for itself
"Belle Isle is a missed opportunity without a zoo,"
said Stewart. "People should invest in the zoo."
This isn't the first time Ferguson has attracted
controversy over city contracts.
Ferguson has been under scrutiny by the City Council
because of change orders that tripled the cost to
taxpayers of an $821,475 contract another of his companies
won in bid in May 2004 with the city's water and sewerage
With two change orders added on, the cost to replace
2,000 feet of piping under Washington Boulevard rose to
Despite the cost overruns, Ferguson was awarded a
second water and sewerage contract.
That contract was for a security system even though the
company's $21.3 million bid price was $2.5 million higher
than the next competitor, and its bid was not the most
qualified, according to the water department's own bid
You can reach Norman Sinclair at (313) 222-2034 or