Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium
Free Press - PAYING FOR
BELLE ISLE: Deficit may pit
Money woes renew calls for entrance fees,
February 22, 2005
BY HUGH McDIARMID JR. and MARISOL BELLO
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
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
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
That reality has led to speculation about drastic measures -- ideas that
almost certainly won't be embraced by Detroit politicians in an election
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
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
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
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
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.