Free Press -
Visitors bid aquarium farewell
rebuffed in bid to save Detroit's fish
April 4, 2005
BY AMBER HUNT MARTIN
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
To the sharp-toothed red-breasted piranha, the
long and slender zebra shovelnose, the
grumpy-looking giant gourami, they bade
Some were wide-eyed youngsters visiting for the
first time, their small faces peering through
glass at strange, colorful and sometimes comical
Others were much older, longtime patrons wanting
to say goodbye not to the fish, but to the
countless afternoons they had spent with their
children, then their grandchildren, at the Belle
"This is too important a place to let go," said
Debbie Kish of Southgate, her eyes filling with
tears. "This is so much a part of Detroit. When
Detroit loses this, it loses its heart."
On Sunday, the 101-year-old institution's last
day open, more than 4,000 people turned out,
estimated members of the Friends of the Belle
Isle Aquarium. The group of metro Detroiters has
been working to save the aquarium since Mayor
Kwame Kilpatrick announced its closure in
Thirty minutes before the doors were to close at
4 p.m., a line of more than 250 people snaked
out the door and down the block.
Young and old chanted in unison: "Leave the fish
alone!" and "Save our aquarium!" and "We wanted
to see the fish. Just give us this little wish."
That wish was granted. The doors stayed open
until the line dwindled after 5 p.m.
Their other wish -- for the aquarium to stay
open -- has been rebuffed.
"This is our public, affordable gem," said Karen
Twomey, a member of the Friends group, pointing
to the line waiting to get inside the aquarium.
"And these people represent dollars. I think
this tells our elected officials where we
In the past five weeks, she said, more than
$80,000 has been raised by increased attendance
prompted by the threat of closure. A weekend
benefit raised $15,000, while nearly $25,000 has
been pledged by businesses and individuals.
The Friends group submitted a last-minute lease
proposal to the city, which asked that its
members be allowed to run the aquarium if it
covered operational costs.
Mayoral spokesman Howard Hughey said Sunday the
city needed a "multiyear, multimillion-dollar
plan with cash in hand." The Friends group
offered none of that.
"We don't want to be facing the same problem
next year," Hughey said. "Why prolong the
The first batch of fish is scheduled to be
trucked to Ohio on April 26, Twomey said.
John Anderson, director of park operations,
couldn't verify Twomey's crowd count. But he
said there have been lots of visitors for
Outside the aquarium Sunday, he fielded angry
questions from protesters who argued the
aquarium was marketed so poorly that many metro
Detroiters didn't know it existed until it was
about to close.
Other protesters waiting in line held up
handmade signs criticizing Kilpatrick, who has
said that running the aquarium costs the
cash-strapped city $700,000 a year. One child
scrawled "Kawame is dum" in chalk on the
But not everyone came to fight. Inside the
aquarium, youngsters gawked at the creatures
swimming behind the glass.
"Look, daddy!" squealed one toddler, sitting on
her father's shoulders.
Nine-year-old Darren Baker took one look at the
huge alligator gar and yelled, "It's as big as a
T. rex!" Then he growled at the glass.
Debbie Kish sat in the middle of the aquarium
with her mother, 73-year-old Margaret Kish of
Dearborn Heights. The two have been coming to
the aquarium since the 1950s.
Margaret Kish said she just wanted to "take it
all in" and spend the day at the family's
favorite local attraction. She watched the 2:30
p.m. feeding of the eel, she said, but something
"He wouldn't eat," she said, her eyes welling.
"It's almost as if he felt something was up."
Contact AMBER HUNT MARTIN at 313-222-2708 or