For students who grew up in Metro Detroit, the prospect that the Detroit Zoo may close is disheartening. That the animals we stared at might be scattered across the country, that the rails we rode bravely as small children through that dark, scary tunnel might rust – merely because the Detroit City Council could not work out a plan to turn the city-owned zoo over to the nonprofit Detroit Zoological Society – seems absurd. Certainly, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the City Council ought to find a way to keep the zoo from closing. Yet if the Detroit Zoo must go the way of the dodo, the lion’s share of the blame lies with the suburban voters who have repeatedly shot down a regional arts millage that would have secured the future of the cultural institutions Metro Detroiters cherish.

Sarah Royce

When the Detroit Zoo opened in 1924, Detroit was the center of southeast Michigan. Wealth from the auto industry found its way to the city’s cultural institutions, both through donations from rich industrialists and through public support from the city taxes paid by Detroit’s middle class.

Detroit still is the center of Southeast Michigan, though it took a Super Bowl to remind some suburbanites who haven’t been downtown for years of that fact. But the city’s fortunes have fallen, with white flight, job loss, struggling schools and crime hindering efforts to stem the continual flow of the city’s population to its suburbs. That the city – the poorest big city in America, according to one recent study – would one day be too poor to provide support its cultural institutions has been clear for years. With last year’s closure of the Belle Isle Aquarium and the current threat to the Detroit Zoo, it is evident that point has been reached.

Responsible local leaders saw this situation coming, and organized in the mid-1990s to push a regional arts millage, similar to those that have successfully supported museums and music halls in cities like Chicago and St. Louis. The majority of the population and wealth have shifted to the suburbs, and state funding for arts and culture were slashed under former Gov. John Engler, those at groups like Detroit Renaissance reasoned. Most users of the cultural institutions in Metro Detroit are suburbanites; shouldn’t suburbanites help support them?

Perhaps the initial failure of the millage – then called Proposal A – in 2000 could be chalked up to confusion with a controversial school voucher plan, Proposal 1, on the ballot that year. But when Proposal K – the “Arts, Parks and Kids” initiative that would have funded 17 cultural institutions in Wayne and Oakland Counties – was defeated in 2002, the message was clear: Suburban voters would not raise their taxes by any amount to help support local arts and culture.

Proposal K was a case study in the absolute lack of meaningful regional cooperation endemic to Metro Detroit. Politicians in Macomb County, not eager to be associated with support for any tax increase, would not discuss putting the issue on the ballot. The perception that Macomb County residents would get a “free ride” doubtlessly cost the proposal some votes in Wayne and Oakland Counties. The general hostility many suburbanites have toward any of their money going to Detroit cost more. In the end, Proposal K was defeated, despite almost $3 million in advertising and the active support of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson – an anti-tax Republican now trying to get a proposal to abolish the state’s Single Business Tax on this fall’s ballot.

To many, the uncertain future facing the Detroit Zoo might seem just another example of the longstanding lack of trust between the Detroit City Council and the mayor. Indeed, the inability of city leaders to work together on the city’s behalf interferes almost daily with the work needed to deal effectively with the challenges that Michigan’s largest city faces.

But if the zoo closes and institutions like the Detroit Historical Museum follow it, the responsibility for the impoverishment of Metro Detroit’s cultural resources will go beyond the city itself. Many people in and around the city already recognize the role that vibrant art and culture organizations play in making the region attractive to the new residents and businesses the region needs to attract. Far from driving home the need for greater regional cooperation, however, the current problems facing the zoo are turning into another venue to air the mutual hostility between the city and its suburbs. That attitude will not contribute to a better future for Detroiters or suburbanites – and it will not save the zoo.

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