Downtown Detroit aquarium idea may be sunk

Neal Rubin, and Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — That aquarium the Detroit Zoo wants to build alongside Hart Plaza? Mayor Mike Duggan says the idea won’t float.

He’s not ruling out the aquarium, which zoo director Ron Kagan recently said could cost as much as $200 million and draw 1 million visitors a year.

But “I don’t know where that aquarium site came from,” Duggan told The Detroit News. “I don’t think downtown makes any sense.”

Kagan mentioned building the facility on the former location of Ford Auditorium, which was leveled seven years ago. That idea appears to have foundered at city hall amid concerns that the land might find a better use, and that its close confines could leave visitors packed like sardines.

Most major developments on city-owned land don’t happen without early support from Duggan and his planning and economic development teams. Duggan and his team also play a key role in working with other property owners in shaping the blooming downtown riverfront, which is being transformed from industrial to an area with popular public spaces, upscale residential buildings and solid corporate anchors, such as General Motors Co. headquarters in the Renaissance Center.

“I think an aquarium could work on the east or west riverfront,” Duggan said.

That’s a notion seconded by George Jackson, the former president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.

“You don’t want to put it where when you leave the building, you have to walk across Jefferson Avenue,” Jackson said. “You want an expanded parkland near it, with an outdoor area people could enjoy.”

Kagan declined to comment on the mayor’s opinions. He said earlier this month that the idea had been bubbling under the surface for nearly 20 years, weighted down by Detroit’s general struggles, the recession and the civic bankruptcy.

The timing appears to be right, even if there are questions about the location.

“You’re definitely seeing a trend toward new aquaria being built,” said Rob Vernon of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in Silver Spring, Maryland. He said factors in the modest boom include concern about polluted waters, the animated movies “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory,” and an aquarium’s relatively small footprint.

Compared to the wide acreage needed for a zoo, “it’s much easier to find space on a city block or along a river or in an unused business park,” he said.

In St. Louis, a $45 million, 125,000-square-foot aquarium is scheduled to open next year in the former mall area of a train station. The Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport is scheduled to open in late 2019 or early 2020.

The AZA lists 52 accredited aquariums in the U.S., 134 zoos, and eight combinations of the two. A number of smaller aquariums are not accredited and don’t appear on its roster.

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta was the most heavily attended of the 52 at 2.44 million last year, according to the AZA. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, attracted about 1.9 million visitors each, and aquariums in Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, Long Beach, California, and Houston were among the 10 that saw at least the 1 million anticipated by Kagan in Detroit.

Two of those 10 were Ripley’s attractions in the tourist cities of Myrtle Beach. South Carolina, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The Downtown Aquarium in Houston — America’s fourth-most-populated city at 2.3 million in a metropolitan area of 6.5 million — reported exactly 1 million visitors.

Large cities whose aquariums fell short of 1 million included Dallas, Tampa, Seattle, New Orleans, Denver and Camden, New Jersey, which draws from Philadelphia.

Denver drew 555,000 patrons, 14 years after the original nonprofit Colorado’s Ocean Journey ran into debt service problems and was sold to a restaurant chain. Tampa, Long Beach, California, and Duluth, Minnesota, are also known to have struggled financially within the past two decades, though all are open.

“You rarely see one, especially one that becomes AZA accredited, close down,” Vernon said. “They’re part of the community for the long term.”

Locally, the partially open Belle Isle Aquarium in Detroit dates to 1904 and is one of the nation’s oldest. The 35,000-square-foot Sea Life Michigan Aquarium at Great Lakes Crossing Outlets in Auburn Hills, open since January 2015, is among the youngest.

The proposed riverfront aquarium would be by far the largest of the three, Kagan said earlier this month, comparable to tourist draws such as the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada in Toronto. He said it would be paid for with a mix of private, public and foundation money.

A spokesperson for the Kresge Foundation, among the likely organizations to be approached for support, said it had not been contacted by the zoo.

Jackson, who now owns a real estate development and consulting firm called Ventra Group LLC, said the first person he recalls mentioning a downtown aquarium was the late Mayor Coleman Young.

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Jackson noted, there were fewer pedestrians than today, and far less competition for space. Now, he reiterated, “Ford would be a tight fit.”

“I would love to see an aquarium come, though,” he said. With the refurbishment of the east riverfront further along than the west, he said, west is the more likely direction — though something close to Belle Isle might be a possibility.

Either way, “You need to zoom in on getting everything financed,” Jackson said.

Like certain species of sharks, utility meters at an aquarium never stop moving. “One thing you don’t want to happen,” he cautioned, “is to build an aquarium and then struggle in terms of funding day-to-day operations.”

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn