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Belle Isle Revival: The Aquarium


Leyland Devito

At 102 years old, it’s America’s oldest aquarium. Its tanks have served as homes for an assortment of aquatic life, including Great Lakes natives, salt-water denizens, and endangered species. But for a year now the tanks in Detroit’s Belle Isle Aquarium have been empty, and threaten to remain empty— unless a group of fish fans has its way.

Enter FOBIA, The Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium. The group formed after the April 2005 decision by the Kilpatrick administration to shut down the aging facilities. A non-profit organization whose membership includes “talented volunteers who are experienced in areas such as law, accounting, marketing, fundraising and an intelligent ichthyologist”, FOBIA seeks to take the matter of the aquarium into their own hands. Boasting a business plan for the next several years and the support of Jennifer Granholm and Senator Hansen Clarke, FOBIA say they have what it takes to save the aquarium. All they are waiting for is city administration to think they do too.

“We have to date $42,000,” FOBIA vice-president and local artist Stephen Goodfellow says. “We have roofers, electricians, and brick layers standing by to offer their services and materials free of charge.” The group has spent the past year amassing support, passing out literature, selling T-shirts, and hosting benefits. “We have as much money as we need until the administration can give us a go-ahead to refurbish and repair that which is necessary for opening the aquarium.” Then it’s a matter of regrouping all of the fish, which Goodfellow assures will be no problem.

In the interim, Goodfellow says to make some noise. “Contact the Mayor’s office and let them know that you want the aquarium reopened. It wouldn’t do any harm to talk to your local officials. Make them aware that you want Michigan to have its only aquarium unshuttered.” Aquarium advocates can also buy T-shirts and obtain information from FOBIA members at the aquarium.

This April marked one year since the city of Detroit shut the doors of the Belle Isle Aquarium for good. Faced with stemming a mammoth $230 million deficit, the Kilpatrick administration made the decision to lay the aquarium, along with other city services, down on the sacrificial table.

There are a lot of reasons that the aquarium was low on the list of things to preserve. The century-old building was indeed showing its age, in need of roof repairs, lacking in restrooms, and dwarfed by modern aquariums. The needy Belle Isle Aquarium simply wasn’t doing its share for the city of Detroit.

Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan’s prospects of a brand-new riverfront “super aquarium” led to the aquarium’s demise as well. Of course, after the city threatened to close the Detroit Zoo altogether earlier this year, it is unlikely that the Detroit Zoological Society would invest in any new facilities, especially at the grand scale of a “super aquarium”. So now, the Great Lakes State is embarrassingly left aquarium-less.

According to Kagan, Detroiters and other patrons have voted to close the aquarium with their attendance, which has been in a steady decline for years. The closing of the nearby Belle Isle Zoo made the aquarium and Belle Isle in general less of a destination, as well as the island’s obvious isolation from Detroit hotspots. But on an advisory question on the August 2nd Primary Election ballot, mere months after the aquarium had closed, an overwhelming number of Detroiters— 88.0%-- voted that they thought the aquarium should be reopened. This was a non-binding advisory ballot, and it doesn’t mean that the city will reopen the aquarium. But it shows what Detroiters want.

Built by Albert Kahn during Detroit’s golden age, the Belle Isle Aquarium was a sign of good times and luxury. It was inspired by aquarium Anton Dohrn in Naples, Italy, and proposed by chief assistant attorney David E. Heineman, the man who wrote “we hope for better things, it shall rise again from the ashes” on Detroit’s flag. Since its conception, it has been a place of scientific and environmental merit as well, being recognized for its ability to breed rare and endangered species of fish. In 2002, a white-spotted bamboo shark famously gave birth to a pair of offspring, even though it had not been in contact with a male shark.

But for many, the value of the Belle Isle Aquarium is largely cultural. “Fancy being surrounded on three sides with the largest body of fresh water in the world,” Goodfellow laments, “yet your kids have to go to a pet shop to view aquatic life!” Goodfellow sees the decision to cut funding to the aquarium as a microcosm to a larger problem in Michigan as a whole: the failure to curb the brain drain of young minds from the region.

“It is so really, really simple,” he says. “If you can't maintain the most elementary institutions that are the cultural backbone of your state, then you must expect the consequences.”

More information can be found at FOBIA’s website: http://belleisleaquarium.com/

Leyland DeVito is studying illustration at Detroit's College for Creative Studies. He can be reached at flyingtreemonkey@aol.com.

Source: http://www.thedetroiter.com/b_city/blogs/index.php?blog=2&cat=1