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Free Press - Visitors bid aquarium farewell
Group is rebuffed in bid to save Detroit's fish

April 4, 2005


To the sharp-toothed red-breasted piranha, the long and slender zebra shovelnose, the grumpy-looking giant gourami, they bade farewell.

Some were wide-eyed youngsters visiting for the first time, their small faces peering through glass at strange, colorful and sometimes comical creatures.

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 Isle Aquarium.

"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 January.

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 stand."

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 inevitable?"

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 several weeks.

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 sidewalk outside.

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 was amiss.

"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 hunt@freepress.com