Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium
LOCAL/STATE : Aquarium
closure not recommended by city council
By Tara D. Sullivan
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
The council convened by asking the attendees to come up with their own
plan to get funding to supplement the financial “gap” facing the
These options are set to be explored on Wednesday morning, during a
“Five minutes,” laughed Watson right before people began filing out of
the room at 2:30 p.m.