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LOSING NEMO: Staff frets over fate of Belle Isle aquarium creatures; 101-year-old building to close

February 10, 2005


On a recent frosty weekday, Diana Patterson slowly pushed a stroller holding her 16-month-old daughter through the humid, nearly empty corridors of Belle Isle's aquarium for the first -- and most likely the last -- time.

"I was looking for something for Sara and I to do and I saw the announcement, so we came down," said Patterson, who recently moved to Birmingham from Massachusetts. "I'm really sorry it's closing. I appreciate the historical aspect."

Barring a monetary miracle, the 101-year-old aquarium with the sea-green tiling will close to the public in March, saving Detroit about $530,000 in annual operating expenses and millions more in renovation costs, said Ron Kagan, director of the Detroit Zoological Institute, which oversees the aquarium.

The decision to shutter the Albert Kahn-designed facility followed the mayor's announcement in January that the City of Detroit needed to take action to reduce its $231-million deficit. Kagan said six aquarium staffers will likely be laid off or transferred to other city departments.

One of those employees is curator Doug Sweet, who is concerned that some of the aquarium's 4,000-plus fish and other marine animals, including 190 different species, will not survive the transfer to other institutions in North America.

He's especially worried about the aquarium's 34 endangered species.

"Public aquariums seem to operate according to their own agenda, or specialize in certain fish," said Sweet, who has been with the aquarium for 18 years. "We've been a center for Mexican endangered fish, for example, and I'm not sure they will survive. It seems like our Detroit tap water is good for these Mexican goodeids. These fish have not fared as well in other public aquariums."

Fish and marine animals at the aquarium range from golden skiffia and alligator gar to opossum shrimp and Columbian ramshorn snails.

The aquarium generates $105,000 annually in revenue; entry fees are $4 for adults and $3 for children. But more than $600,000 was spent three years ago to repair the floor's infrastructure.

Significant upgrades are still needed for marine animals and visitors, including a new roof, basement, work area and marine animal holding area.

"Whenever you have life-support systems in a building, especially aquatic ones, you ultimately have humidity, which leads to challenges," Kagan said, adding that there also have been budget cuts and layoffs at the Detroit Zoo. "It's had a lot of water in it for a long time."

Despite new exhibits, attendance at the aging Victorian building has continued to decline, from 113,000 in 1995 to 86,000 in 2000. Last year the aquarium had only 56,000 visitors, Kagan said.

One problem is that the 10,000-square-foot building is far too small, he said. "Something designed 100 years ago doesn't necessarily work as well as a tourist attraction now. It's very limited in terms of size and structure."

Kagan said he hopes what is now North America's oldest continuously operating public aquarium will eventually be turned into a museum, or used in conjunction with the conservatory next door.

Kagan also is holding out hope that a new, much larger aquarium will be built downtown, preferably on the riverfront.

A 2002 Detroit Aquarium Feasibility Study, commissioned by the Detroit Zoological Institute, calls for a 150,000-square-foot facility featuring walk-through aquatic exhibits and larger species such as sharks and sea turtles.

This kind of aquarium could attract one million visitors annually and generate $100 million each year, the study said.

Walt Watkins, Detroit's director of planning and development, said any Detroit Zoological Institute aquarium proposal would have to be accompanied by a funding plan.

"We agree that it would be a good thing for the city. It's been talked about conceptually," he said.

None of that is consolation to Mary Waterstone, president of Friends of Belle Isle and a 3rd Judicial Circuit Court judge. She called the looming closure appalling.

"It is treating the citizens of Detroit with the back of their hand," she said. "Fifty-six thousand visitors is not insignificant."

The Detroit budgetary problems are a convenient excuse, she added.

"This is all extremely depressing."