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The impact: Zoo, museums fight to thrive

The impact: Zoo, museums fight to thrive

April 13, 2005


The Detroit Zoo isn't to the point of offering to sell its name for big bucks to a corporation.

And the Detroit Historical Museum on Woodward is hanging onto its artifacts, not quite ready to go the way of the New York Public Library, which will auction its art collection to make up for city budget cuts.

Still, almost anything is up for discussion as the Detroit Zoological Institute and the Detroit Historical Museum -- two city-owned institutions and regional gems for art lovers, animal lovers, students and tourists -- figure out how creative they can be in finding ways to make up for millions of dollars in funding cuts proposed Tuesday by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Ron Kagan, director of the Detroit Zoological Institute, and Bob Bury, executive director of the Detroit Historical Society, said they've tapped nearly every fund-raising mechanism available, but they plan to find more ways to raise and save money.

"From raffles to black-tie events to less-formal events and all kinds of different things, we've tried it," Bury said.

However, with the cuts that lie ahead, he said there will be an even greater focus on innovative ways to attract financial support.

Kagan said the zoo has already sold naming rights to many of its exhibits. It has also renegotiated a contract for its concessions in order to make more money, and cut its operating hours from March through November.

The zoo will raise admission 50 cents beginning by July 1, Kagan said. The new cost will be $11 for adults, $7 for children and $9 for people age 62 and older. He and Bury said another option is to revive a regional arts tax referendum. Voters rejected the referendum in 2000 and 2002. It would have funded places of art and culture in Wayne and Oakland counties.

"Increasingly we are serving a metro Detroit area that is broadening from a tri-county area to a nine-county area," Bury said. "It's only logical that we all should share the cost."

Kagan added: "It has to happen. Otherwise there will be more situations like the closing of the Belle Isle Aquarium."

Both said they understand the city's financial limits, and are committed to surviving without city support.

The city is cutting about 16 percent of the zoo budget and as much as 64 percent of the history museums' budgets. The budget proposal would cut the zoo's funding by about $3.4 million and the budget for Detroit Historical Museums, which runs the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, Historic Ft. Wayne on Jefferson and the riverfront, and the Detroit Historical Museum on Woodward, by about $2 million.

The Detroit Zoo, which attracted 1 million visitors last year, will also cut staff by about 14 people; six staffers were let go in the closing of the Belle Isle Aquarium on April 3, Kagan said. And the city department that now runs the history museums would be almost eliminated with the loss of 16 positions, according to the proposed budget.

Bury said the Detroit Historical Society, the charitable fund-raising arm for the museums, expects to take over more daily operations and nearly all fund-raising. He could not say what, if any, negative effect the budget cuts would have on the museums.

At a time when a severe budget crisis has the city struggling to pay just for the basic services, museums and zoos -- which serve the region, if not the entire state -- are luxuries that cannot be afforded, Kilpatrick said.

Kilpatrick said the city is headed toward shifting financial and operational responsibility for the zoo and museums to the Detroit Zoological Society and the Detroit Historical Society, which are the nonprofit arms of the city departments that now oversee the zoo and the museums.

The transfer of operations to a private entity mirrors the Detroit Institute of Arts' arrangement that made the museum almost independent by setting up a management agreement with the city. The city would, however, keep control of the assets.

Kilpatrick said the cultural institutions should become self-sufficient rather than relying on the city for part of their funding.

"I think it strengthens the cultural institutions when they are not tied to public funding," Kilpatrick said during his budget presentation before the City Council. "We're not disengaging from those institutions. We're changing our relationship."

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History will continue to receive its city subsidy of $1.8 million.

Kilpatrick said the museum needs more time to get its finances in order. Last year, even as the museum struggled to increase attendance and make payroll for employees, the city bailed it out.

Renee Monforton, spokeswoman for the Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau, characterized the zoo and the Detroit Historical Museum as "critical components of how we package the city for potential individual leisure travelers and group business travelers."

A few visitors at the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak and the Detroit Historical Museum voiced their opinions Tuesday.

Gazing at a display about the comic strip "Cathy" and its creator, former Detroiter Cathy Guisewite, Alice Furman had the Detroit Historical Museum mostly to herself Tuesday afternoon. The morning's school group had left.

Furman, of Stoughton, Mass., said she was trying to prove her husband wrong. He is attending the Society of Automotive Engineers 2005 World Congress. When she had asked to come with him, he argued that there was nothing to do in Detroit.

At the zoo, Lindsey Rem and her 2-year-old son Eric, both of Ferndale, and Carolyn Ceccacci and her 5-month-old son Luca, both of Royal Oak, were in the indoor butterfly garden.

Both women said they hoped the zoo would be able to weather the city's budget crisis. "I think it stinks," Linda Hunt of Bloomfield Hills said of the proposed cuts.

As Hunt and Wilson crossed a footbridge, a pair of trumpeter swans gliding by below gave out with the call that earned them their name.

"They're telling the mayor: Don't cut our budget," Hunt said.

Contact KIM NORTH SHINE at 313-223-4557 or kshine@freepress.com