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Detroit News
Belle Isle a neglected gem waiting for political will
by Charlie LeDuff

Last Updated: January 28. 2010 4:17PM
Travels with Charlie
Belle Isle a neglected gem waiting for political will
Charlie LeDuff / The Detroit News

Detroit --Whenever I feel troubled or penned-in, one of my favorite places is Belle Isle, where I can sit on the bank of the river and let my mind run. But when I went to Belle the other morning, I got a clear and unobstructed view of its 982 acres.

There is no other way to say it: The island, like the city, is plagued by neglect.

Take the Belle Isle Zoo.

The mostly vacant Belle Isle Aquarium contains one display tank containing about 25 Japanese Koi, thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium. The group is trying to raise $1 million to reopen the aquarium, designed by Albert Kahn. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

It was closed by disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in 2002 for budget reasons.
He promised to reopen it, but never did. In the meantime, the zoo has given over to climbing vines and wild dogs.
As the zoo was closed, a million dollars was found to build a holding pen for a few dozen European deer that used to roam the island freely. That contract was awarded to Bobby Ferguson, the mayor's friend who got a lot of contracts during the Kilpatrick years.

Today, the holding pen is being dug up and the deer shoved to one corner, since rotting sewer pipes weren't replaced before erecting the pen.

And then there is the Belle Isle Aquarium, a 10,000-square-foot gem with an eight-sided dome that opened in 1904 as the entrance to the botanical conservatory.

Kilpatrick closed the aquarium in 2005, saying the $300,000 a year it cost the city to run the place was better used toward things like tearing down abandoned buildings. In the end, he only succeeded in creating another.
The aquarium is still in a good state of repair. Unlike much of Detroit, vandals and nature have yet to ravage it.

Designed by Albert Kahn as part of the "City Beautiful Movement," the ceilings are still covered in green glass tiles, the viewing tanks are still lined in chromium and the steam heat still operates. The roof needs work.
It is Michigan's only and America's oldest aquarium and the Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium are trying to raise $1 million to reopen it.

"Once it is lost, it is lost," said Vance Patrick, president of the organization who gave me a tour. "I took my kids there. I went there as a kid. Generations have grown up going to the Belle Isle Aquarium. There is no other opportunity to visit aquatic life in the Great Lakes state."
Two ideas for saving Belle Isle and its venue have been floating around for at least 15 years, but there seems to be no political will or energy to seize upon then.

The first is a conservancy, a public-private partnership that oversees maintenance and improvements to the park. Such an arrangement means funding would come from fundraising, grants and user fees. New York's Central Park has been operating like this since 1980, when joggers feared for their lives and junkies inhabited bathroom stalls.

It should be noted that both Central Park and Belle Isle were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of landscape architecture. In my opinion, Belle Isle is the more beautiful.
The conservancy arrangement is not unprecedented in Detroit: the Institute of Arts, Zoo, Science Center and Historical Museum all operate as such. And Belle Isle has no lack of supporters who do much conservation work anyway including: the Friends of Belle Isle, the Belle Isle Botanical Society and the Belle Isle Women's Committee.

The second idea is a user fee, like those used at the Huron-Clinton Metroparks.

Belle Isle now has no budget specifically for itself, said Keith Flournoy, the park manager, since its budget is folded into the greater parks and recreation budget. The budget for all the parks in the city is $25 million, half of what it was when the aquarium was closed.

"If they don't do something soon, all we will pass our children is a pile of rubble," said Ernest Burkeen, the director of Detroit Parks and Recreation under Mayor Dennis Archer and currently the director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Miami.

"Unfortunately, race is always a bogey man. We're giving it away to the suburbs, the argument goes," Burkeen said. "Secondly, there is a political culture in Detroit where you have a bunch of people who are against everything. They can't give you a better way. They simply say no."

Mayor Dave Bing said earlier this year he is considering funding options to resurrect the forlorn island. Residents wait.

If you wish to tour the shuttered aquarium, it will be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 6 as part of the annual Shiver on the River celebration of Belle Isle.

The event will feature live entertainment and the opening of the island's other venues including the casino and conservatory. Donations are welcome.

[send email to charlie@detnews.com via gmail] charlie@detnews.com

From The Detroit News