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Free Press - PAYING FOR BELLE ISLE: Deficit may pit

Money woes renew calls for entrance fees, privatization

February 22, 2005


Cultural jewels like Belle Isle face harsh realities in coming months as Detroit struggles to find money for them and still pay for essential services like street lighting, trash pickup and bus service amid a $231-million budget deficit.

City officials said attractions at the island park, one of Detroit's natural treasures, aren't in danger of immediate collapse, but prospects for financial relief anytime soon are alarming. There's little money to address major issues such as renovating rundown buildings, shoring up battered landscape and providing the programs that once made the island a regional destination.

As Detroit grapples with its worst budget crisis in years, the coming debate could well pit the city's need for crucial services, such as police and fire protection and water service, against its desire to support institutions like Belle Isle and other cultural icons.

Already, the red ink has forced the city to announce the closing of its 101-year-old aquarium on Belle Isle. Opponents of the aquarium closing -- ordered last month by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Zoo Director Ron Kagan -- brought their case to the City Council on Monday but came away with no promises that the aquarium would survive. Kilpatrick closed the Belle Isle Zoo three years ago.

In coming months, the city could be forced to consider a host of tougher measures, including charging an entrance fee for Belle Isle, privatizing services or transferring operation of the park to the Huron-Clinton Metropark Authority. All are politically volatile issues in the city. Detroiters, like other property owners in the five counties of the regional park authority, pay taxes to run 13 parks, none in Detroit.

City leaders said the looming closure of Belle Isle's century-old aquarium doesn't signal death throes for the venerable, 983-acre island designed by the creators of New York's Central Park.

In spite of budget turmoil, changes in recent years have restored some of the island's heritage and luster. Visitors say trash pickup, restroom cleaning and landscaping work has improved markedly. And new features and upgrades either have been completed or soon will open.

"There's been a lot of conversation about 'Belle Isle is dead and dying' and that's just not true. In fact, it's just the opposite," said city recreation director Charlie Beckham. "We had 8 million people come to the island last year and only 50,000 visited the aquarium. The aquarium closing is not the death of Belle Isle."

He admits, however, that there's no rainbow in sight leading to the $200-million pot of gold that would fund a full refurbishing of the island's buildings, canals, landscaping and utility infrastructure. And Beckham says it's getting tougher to scratch for the $6.7 million to pay for annual operations and maintenance costs on the island funded by his department.

That reality has led to speculation about drastic measures -- ideas that almost certainly won't be embraced by Detroit politicians in an election year.

Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel said it may be time for Detroit to revisit the master plan laid out for Belle Isle in 2001 that included charging an entrance fee.

Beckham said a fee "isn't totally off the table" but is opposed by Kilpatrick. What's more, it would require a tremendous expenditure of political capital for a relatively meager financial gain: "If we charged $2 per car, that would only raise $4 million a year," Beckham said. "Compared with the $200 million we need, it's not that much."

It is, however, more than half of what's spent to operate Belle Isle today.

Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer championed a $3 per car fee in the late 1990s but was repeatedly blocked by the City Council. A move toward a public vote on a fee -- which one poll showed was supported by a majority of Detroiters -- fell apart when Archer chose not to seek re-election in 2001.

"Privatization is an ugly word in this city," said Tom Wilson Jr., a board member with Friends of Belle Isle. He said transferring the island's ownership would be political suicide for elected officials, but it still ought to be explored. "By any means necessary, as Malcolm X said. If Huron-Clinton could take it over and run it more efficiently than the city has, maybe we should let them do so."

A Metroparks spokeswoman said Monday that no such proposal has been presented to the authority.

"We're not turning over one of our major facilities to Huron Valley," Deputy Mayor Anthony Adams said. "If anything, Huron Valley needs to invest more money in our facilities."

Privatization of any of the city-funded Belle Isle assets like the Dossin Great Lakes Museum or the stately old casino building that hosts receptions, parties, family reunions and professional conferences also is not an option, Beckham said.

Golf operations on the island -- a nine-hole course, driving range and practice area -- are being privatized to save money. But beyond that, "it's not something that's even being talked about," Beckham said Monday. He also said there has been no discussion of selling part of the land for private use -- for instance, high-end condominiums that could help provide a tax base and reduce maintenance expenses for the remainder of the island.

At Monday's council meeting, supporters of the aquarium, many of them suburban residents, pleaded for its life.

All council members urged a cooling-off period that would allow the aquarium activists and zoo and administration officials to sit down and look for alternative funding for the aquarium.

Council members Sharon McPhail and JoAnn Watson say they will introduce resolutions Wednesday to stop the zoo from transferring the fish from the aquarium to other zoos and aquariums.

So far, the aquarium has transferred about 70 fish to the Toledo Zoo.

"It's a bad decision," McPhail said. "It's a very little amount of money."

The city allocates about $14 million from its general fund for the zoo, about $490,000 of which goes to the aquarium. That is offset by $156,000 in revenue, so the net tax cost to the city is $334,000.

Kagan said the total operating budget, though, for the aquarium is $700,000.

And while city leaders downplayed the effect of the aquarium closure on the island's vitality, the debate reinvigorated discussion over the Belle Isle's future.

The debate is personal for generations of people who have enjoyed the water's edge paradise known to Native Americans as Wah-nah-be-zee, or "white swan." It was purchased by the city from a Detroit family for $180,000 in 1879, amid protests from some citizens that the price was too high.

Hand-wringing about the island's fate -- and debate about how best to restore its luster -- go back at least a couple generations.

In the early 1970s Detroiters voted to let the Huron-Clinton Metropark Authority run Belle Isle's facilities and maintain its grounds. The plan was torpedoed in 1972 when voters in the Metropark counties turned down a tax increase that would have allowed the acquisition and others.

Contact HUGH McDIARMID JR. at 248-351-3295 or Staff writer Salina Ali contributed to this report.