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LOCAL/STATE : Aquarium closure not recommended by city council


By Tara D. Sullivan
News Editor

At a three-and-a-half hour Detroit City Council meeting yesterday afternoon, Belle Isle Aquarium enthusiasts poured their childhood memories of visits to the park and its aquarium into three council microphones reserved for such testimonial. Their pleas to “save” the aquarium were voiced intermittently with Detroit Zoological Society advisers who were trying to sway council member opinions in light of the city’s current deficit.

Promptly at 11 a.m., the dimly lit room began to fill with concerned citizens, some toting brightly painted wooden fish that were purchased just the night before in front of the Belle Isle Aquarium. The “fish sticks” signaled philanthropic interest in the aquarium’s preservation, as proceeds from their purchase went directly to the facility.
Kathleen Alan, a native Detroiter and Wayne State University graduate, was the first attendee to step up to the large, round table and address the council.

Alan presented a detailed list of 13 concerns on behalf of the “Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium.” The list included the fact that the 101-year-old aquarium building is a historical site, and addressed the repercussions of ending the endangered species research conducted therein, exemplifying the Golden Skiffia, or Golden Sawfin, which has seen “sketchy” survival rates outside of the protective tanks maintained by the aquarium staff, and may be in danger of extinction if forced to “do without.”

“This cannot be duplicated anywhere,” she said.

Pulling out a stack of response print-outs, which she lifted in plain view of the council, Alan said that the large number of responses in support of keeping the aquarium open didn’t even include those sent via the Internet, and came from over 100 countries, 49 states, and of all Michigan counties.

The words of Thomas A. Wilson, Jr., a board member of the Friends of Belle Isle, a separate but related group to FOBIA were met with nods and applause from the majority of the audience as he asked “What will there be left on Belle Isle to do?” His query followed a brief overview of the 2002 closure of the Belle Isle Zoo and a mention of a circulating, though unconfirmed, rumor that the Belle Isle Casino will also be closed.

Jack Smiley, president of the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy, offered a different viewpoint, as he used to stand closer to the Detroit Zoological Society on the issue as he dreamed of a bigger, brighter future for a local aquarium. The Detroit Zoo has been toying with the idea recently, which some say is a concept that is too loosely tied to warrant the immediate closure of the city’s currently operating aquarium.

“I used to think a larger aquarium was a good idea,” he said, stating that other new aquariums’ dwindling success has changed his mind.
According to Alan, FOBIA research confirms that there is a “saturation” of new aquariums across the country, meaning that there are too many aquariums supported by a comparably smaller interest. The result she said, is a very costly facility to run and attend.

According to FOBIA, a new aquarium in Detroit would need to charge visitors a $20 entrance fee.

Attendee Dina Greenway, who lives in Indian Village in Detroit, told The South End that she thinks that even if a new aquarium was built, the old aquarium would serve a “pivotal” role as a necessary holding facility for the animals.

Ron Kagan, director of the Detroit Zoological Institute who recently lost some of the fund-raising authority he has held since 2001 to a newly created position, chairman of the Detroit Zoological Society, held by Ruth R. Glancy, presented figures and facts to the council, urging them to consider the financial positioning of the aquarium within the city.
According to Kagan, the aquarium costs the city of Detroit over $530,000 a year for basic operations while generating only $105,000 in revenue, an amount that still falls short of actual future operating costs when factoring in improvements to comply with city codes and necessary upgrades to the century-old building. In short, the facility is not bringing in the revenue to support itself.

As a battle ensued between hard facts and heartfelt memories, another issue was brought to the council table.

As Alan asked Kagan to stop “the fish moving out,” referring to 70 different animals that have recently been moved out of the aquarium building, Councilwoman Sharon McPhail began to question the legality of the Zoological Society’s action.

McPhail said that the Council must approve any and all transaction of the city’s property — in this case, the 70 or so fish.

But, as Councilwoman Sheila M. Cockrel pointed out, the policy had recently been amended to allow the animal experts at the Society to make animal movement decisions.

Not suggesting that the council should substitute expert opinion, McPhail advised a review of the policy.

As Cockrel pointed at her watch, mentioning “lunch” to the gatherers, the meeting quickly came to a close.

Councilwoman JoAnn Watson passed around memos detailing her recommendation that the official closure of the aquarium, which was announced Jan. 13 as part of the city’s efforts to close in on the projected 2005-06 budget deficit, be allowed a “cooling off period.” She recommended that an official decision be decided upon in one year, after a financial investigation is conducted and analyzed.

As council members nodded their approval, Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins reminded those in the room that “a man does not live by bread alone.”

The council expressed its support for the aquarium, but also raised concerns about their legislative powers concerning the matter, recalling his veto of their recommendation to keep the Belle Isle Zoo open in 2002, despite Charter orders that a two-thirds council vote should prevail.

The council convened by asking the attendees to come up with their own plan to get funding to supplement the financial “gap” facing the aquarium.

These options are set to be explored on Wednesday morning, during a “brief” meeting.

“Five minutes,” laughed Watson right before people began filing out of the room at 2:30 p.m.