Impact 100 Metro Detroit 2019 Grant Summary
Grant Finalist: Belle Isle Conservancy
Project: Belle Isle Aquarium Gallery Restoration

Background: Four longtime park advocacy agencies—Friends of Belle Isle, Belle Isle Botanical Society, Belle Isle Women’s Committee, and the Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium—started a merger process in 2009 to form the Belle Isle Conservancy. Leaders of the four groups dissolved their organizations so that together, they can be a stronger force with resources to offer more environmental, educational, cultural, and recreational experiences for all to enjoy.

The Belle Isle Conservancy works in close partnership with the State of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, the City of Detroit, and island partners to bring additional resources to Belle Isle. In February of 2014, the DNR began managing Belle Isle as a state park under a 30-year lease with the City of Detroit, as part of the City’s financial restructuring. The City retains ownership of the park, and the DNR is the responsible agent for day to day operations maintaining infrastructure, removing debris, and making park improvements for all to enjoy.

The Conservancy serves as the voice of the community and an advocate for the park, brings volunteer resources to the park, operates the Belle Isle Aquarium, and actively raises funds for needed projects and improvements on the island.

Unmet Need: Generations of Metro Detroiters have experienced the joy and education provided by the Belle Isle Aquarium. Each weekend, the Aquarium opens for free to the public, where 150,000 annual visitors will be exposed to the natural beauty and important ecological lessons our collection has to offer. On weekdays, the Aquarium hosts several thousand 3rd – 5th grade Detroit and Hamtramck Public Schools students on field trips annually–providing an immersive, fun, and educational experience.

Additionally, dozens of other educational and recreational groups have the chance to experience the historic aquarium throughout the year. By funding the restoration and expansion of the Belle Isle Aquarium gallery, Impact100 Metro Detroit would support our efforts to provide a one-of-a-kind
educational and recreational experience for both locals and visitors, cementing Belle Isle and it’s beloved Aquarium as the must-see destination in Detroit.

Project Summary: In 2012, when the Belle Isle Aquarium reopened after seven years of vacancy, less than ten percent of the Aquarium’s fifty-six tanks were habitable by fish. Now, seven years since reopening, only seven tanks remain unopened. Impact100 Metro Detroit’s grant would fund the rehabilitation and restoration of the remaining tanks – completing the Aquarium’s historic gallery. It would also fund capital improvements in twenty-three of the Aquarium’s operating tanks to bring their life support infrastructure up to current industry standards.

Grant funds would contribute to glass replacement, concrete work, tank scaping, sand filtration, biofiltration, epoxy sealings, and dozens of other improvements to both the online and offline tanks, along with the labor necessary to implement them.

Outcome: The success of this project is not only characterized by the completion of the terms of the grant, but also by the completion of the gallery for generations of metro Detroiters to cherish. Fulfillment of the grant would be the final step of a seven-year project to bring the Belle Isle Aquarium from an overlooked and abandoned relic to a Metro Detroit icon.

Sustainability: Each year, the Belle Isle Conservancy’s Grand Prixmiere Gala raises around half a million dollars for the maintenance and operation of the Aquarium so that admission remains free to the public. Since this is a capital improvement project, the bulk of the cost will be upfront.

The Belle Isle Aquarium has a director, curator, and an array of full-time staff members which tend to the aquarium’s collection and gallery.

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