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Fighting to save the fish

Supporters to seek council's help today

February 21, 2005


It's sink or swim for the nation's oldest public fish exhibit, set to close within two weeks unless pro-Belle Isle Aquarium activists find benefactors or convince the Detroit City Council to intervene at a hearing this morning.

Since city leaders announced the aquarium's closure as part of drastic city budget cuts last month, a growing chorus of supporters has been lobbying for a stay of execution for the venerable 101-year-old building that has hosted generations of metro Detroit school groups and fish enthusiasts.

"I know hard choices need to be made, but at the end of the day, what will this city have?" said Stephen Goodfellow, a Highland Park resident who is spearheading a grassroots effort to keep the aquarium open. "The city needs something to show its history. That is what a city is. You can't be just a bunch of shuttered buildings of things that used to be."

Goodfellow said the closing of the aquarium has touched off an outpouring of support among metro Detroiters fed up with seeing the city's treasures disappear one at a time. Last month, Goodfellow launched a Web site petition to keep the aquarium open that has drawn almost 1,500 people.

The online activity led to the creation of Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium. The fledgling group held a rally at the aquarium Sunday and will plead its case before the Detroit City Council today.

Chanting "100 more years!" and waving neon-painted fish sticks (wooden cutouts of fish attached to sticks), a few dozen people rallied in steady snow.

Protester Charles Novacek, 76, of Detroit said, "It disturbs me very much that we are destroying so much history here.

"Not many cities have such a wonderful display of natural underwater creatures." As visitors swarmed the aquarium's entrance, Detroiter Martin Cadwell urged people to sign a petition and attend the council meeting.

"I think if it was properly promoted we'd see crowds like this on a regular basis," Cadwell, 55, said.

The group's first priority, say its members, is to keep the aquarium open -- and stop zoo officials from carting away the 4,500 species of fish and other critters that make up the exhibit -- while they find funding alternatives.

The exhibit, opened in 1904 and designed by noted architect Albert Kahn, is North America's oldest continuously operating aquarium.

Over the last several years attendance has declined steadily. In 1995, more than 113,000 visitors toured the aquarium. By last year, the number dropped to 56,000.

Zoo director Ron Kagan said he had hoped to keep the aquarium open until a $100-million replacement could be completed downtown.

But he and other city officials say the recent budget crisis means tough decisions.

Closing the exhibit would save the city about $334,000 at a time when it is trying to close a $94-million deficit for the fiscal year that ended last June. The net operating budget for the aquarium is about $500,000, Kagan said. But he said if the Friends group or others are able to secure $400,000 to $500,000 in private funding, he's willing to keep the aquarium open. Members of the Friends group say they do not have specific plans, but they are looking at partnerships with private or nonprofit institutions, and they're also planning fund-raisers.

Their next stop is a hearing with the council, where the group has found some initial support.

Last week, council members JoAnn Watson and Kenneth Cockrel Jr. requested that zoo officials stop removing fish until the council can hear Friends' proposals.

Watson said she plans to introduce a resolution to stop the shuttering, while her colleague Sharon McPhail raised the possibility of the council suing the city to stop the closure.

The council sued the city in 2003 when Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick closed the Belle Isle Zoo as part of budget cuts, but it lost the case.

Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel said she wants to hear the group's concerns, but said the city unfortunately just doesn't have the money to continue to operate as it currently does.

The exhibit showcases 4,500 fish, 34 species of which are endangered. Two -- the golden sawfin goodeid and the pinstripe damba -- thrive particularly well in the aquarium, say fish hobbyists.

Joe Derek, a naturalist and aquarium buff from Farmington Hills, is part of a loosely knit network of aquarium hobbyists that has rallied to the aid of Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium.

"This is one of the only aquariums raising endangered species, and they want to close it?" Derek said.

Kagan said the aquarium animals will be transferred to other accredited zoos and aquariums.

He acknowledged the many endangered and rare species that have been given extra care by the aquarium for years, but said they aren't disappearing, just moving.

And he doesn't think Detroit will see the last of its own aquarium. He holds out hope that a new 150,000-square-foot aquarium (compared to 10,000 square feet at Belle Isle) could be completed by 2009, drawing tourists from across the region and bringing $100 million annually into Detroit's economy. It would be funded with a combination of private and public dollars, with contributions from the state and from city bond sales, he said.

"Belle Isle does a wonderful job in terms of conservation," he said. "But it's time to ensure what we're doing is having significant impact both for conservation and for the city. It's unrealistic to think something designed for animals 101 years ago could be a mega-hit with tourists."

But fish fans like Derek fear a new aquarium would be more about money and less about fish. The current aquarium charges a maximum of $4 for admission.

"They want to make razzle-dazzle, but no one knows if a multimillion-dollar aquarium will even ever be built. And if it does, it'll probably cost $20 to even get in the door," said Derek.

Contact MARISOL BELLO at 313-222-6678 or Staff writer Laura Potts contributed to this report.