As the city bleeds red ink and prepares to lay off police and fire personnel, contractors are gearing up to build a $1 million display pen for 20 European fallow deer and native Michigan animals at Belle Isle’s new nature zoo.
Zoo Director Ron Kagan said officials there had no say in awarding the building contract, which went to a company with no experience doing work for the zoo. That company subcontracted the first phase of the job to a company run by Bobby Ferguson, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s longtime friend who also is involved in two other controversial city contracts.
The new facility, which will be funded by a city bond issue approved for the project last year by city voters, replaces the Belle Isle zoo that was closed in 2002 because of poor attendance and meager revenues. In May, the Kilpatrick administration also closed the 101-year-old aquarium on the island, citing 2004 revenues of $105,000 and operating costs of $700,000.
Jim Netter grew up in Detroit and lived in the city for much of his life. He says it’s “nuts” to spend $1 million to house deer when police layoffs are imminent.
“To spend a million dollars you need some kind of intelligent plan,” said Netter, 56, of Wayne, whose two children live in Detroit.
“You have people who are going to get laid off and don’t know how they are going to live and pay their bills,” Netter said. “The deer can be adopted by neighboring cities. There are other options.”
Michael McBride, a park user and a member of the Friends of Belle Isle group for more than 20 years, said he is perplexed by the timing of the construction in light of the city’s finances and the closing of the two other facilities.
“I’m not saying this is a bad idea in the long run, but there are more urgent problems that need immediate attention on the island than a nature zoo,” McBride said. Among the needs he identified were upgrading the island’s other public facilities, fixing drainage problems with the canals, and taking down and replacing a huge number of dead trees.
Voters approved bond
Despite budget woes, city officials’ hands are tied. Voters approved the bond specifically for the nature zoo in 2004, so the money can’t be spent on anything else.
Detroit Building Authority officials have refused to explain the criteria they used to select the company awarded the contract.
At least four companies with track records of successfully completing major zoo projects were rejected for the Belle Isle contract. In May, the Building Authority, whose director, Elizabeth Benson, is Mayor Kilpatrick’s cousin, selected KEO & Associates as the most qualified of the seven companies that submitted proposals for the job. Because the zoo contract was awarded through the Building Authority, it did not require approval by the City Council.
KEO, owned by Chris Onwuzurike, sublet the first phase of the work to Ferguson’s Xcel Construction.
In an interview, Kagan said he did not know the name of the contractor selected for the job. He said while zoo officials are usually consulted in the choosing prospective contractors, the Building Authority has the final say.
“We usually agree with what they are doing because we don’t know the business of construction, and they do,” Kagan said.
However, in a May 24 letter to Benson at the Building Authority, Kagan distanced himself from the selection of KEO. He pointed out that of the seven companies that submitted proposals, the authority picked an unknown entity.
“Though we have worked directly with a few of the other companies, the firm selected by the DBA is new to the Institute,” Kagan wrote. “As the zoological Institute was not a formal member of the selection committee, we yield to the Building Authority’s discretion in this matter.”
In his letter, Kagan also asked that Benson provide the zoo with a copy of the evaluation criteria used to select KEO to determine why that company was chosen over the others. Benson has not done so.
The city’s law department also denied a Freedom of Information request from The Detroit News seeking the same document, saying the zoo does not have any such record. Onwuzurike said although his 11-year-old company has not worked for the zoo before, it is experienced in doing other work for the city on various kinds of projects.
“There was a process and we put in our bid on the RFP (request for proposals) and were selected for the job,” he said.
He said he put the first phase of the job out for bids and selected Ferguson because he had the low bid of the three companies that responded. Ferguson could not be reached for comment.
“I was surprised to hear KEO got the job. I’ve never heard of them,” said Darren Murphy, vice president of rival construction company DeMaria. “We have done quite a bit of work at the Detroit Zoo and thought we were competing against four or five of the other companies that have also worked for the zoo.”
Nature zoo has two phases
With architectural and engineering fees, this phase of the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, which involves remodeling part of the closed zoo, will cost $2 million. Those renovations are complete and that section is open on weekends.
Kagan said the pen and infrastructure, which includes things such as sidewalks and fencing, should be completed for a year-end opening. The project cost was scaled back from up to $10 million that would have included a Yellowstone Park-style lodge.
Kagan described the facility as a hybrid between a traditional nature center and a small zoo.
“It highlights animals of the region much more than a normal nature center would. A normal nature center does not have the animal care staff and background that a zoo does,” Kagan said. In addition to deer, the nature zoo will eventually have otters, black bear, turtles, water fowl and amphibians of the region.
Betty Stewart, a 48-year-old tool and die worker from Southfield, grew up in Detroit and fondly remembers going to the Belle Isle zoo on field trips as a kid. She supports the nature zoo but thinks the facility should charge admission to make the project pay for itself though.
“Belle Isle is a missed opportunity without a zoo,” said Stewart. “People should invest in the zoo.”
This isn’t the first time Ferguson has attracted controversy over city contracts.
Ferguson has been under scrutiny by the City Council because of change orders that tripled the cost to taxpayers of an $821,475 contract another of his companies won in bid in May 2004 with the city’s water and sewerage department.
With two change orders added on, the cost to replace 2,000 feet of piping under Washington Boulevard rose to $2.9 million.
Despite the cost overruns, Ferguson was awarded a second water and sewerage contract.
That contract was for a security system even though the company’s $21.3 million bid price was $2.5 million higher than the next competitor, and its bid was not the most qualified, according to the water department’s own bid evaluations.