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Belle Isle’s transformation under state control: What's changed, what's still coming

Feb 19, 2024

An overview and update of the transition of Belle Isle from management by the City of Detroit to Michigan State Parks.


Keith Matheny

Detroit Free Press

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As Belle Isle moved from city control to a state park in February 2014, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources had its hands full.

The City of Detroit had filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy the previous July, the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history by debt, estimated at up to $20 billion. A city budget stretched to the breaking point had for years failed to keep pace with the operations and upkeep needs at Belle Isle — and it showed.

"None of the bathrooms were open at all; everything was closed," said Ron Olson, Chief of the Parks and Recreation Division at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

"There was a lot of vandalism. There was water leaking from water pipes that had frozen but weren't repaired. A lot of roofs that were bad, leaking into buildings.

"It was challenging."

Ten years and more than $115 million in capital spending later, the state has made significant headway on stopping Belle Isle's infrastructure decline and improving the experience for park-goers. But much difficult work and many hard choices remain to determine what can cost-effectively be saved.

Belle Isle has more than 5 million visitors per year, making it the second-most-visited state park in the United States behind only Niagara Falls, New York.

"People care a lot" about Belle Isle, Olson said.

"There are many, many lives that have been impacted by the park. People who go there all the time, who had a wedding there, their first bike ride or it's where they learned to drive a car. Their family had graduation parties or family reunions.

"It's really a people's place. That's our goal is to really respect the people's park."

Out of Detroit's historic bankruptcy, a state park on the Detroit River

The state was looking to help the city with its bankruptcy, and to build upon a recent trend of parks and recreation investment in Detroit, Olson said. Preceding projects had included the creation of the Outdoor Adventure Center in the historic Globe Building on the east Detroit riverfront, and working with the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy to preserve park and open space along the river.

The expenditures were largely done through the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, which uses proceeds from oil and natural gas development revenues on state-owned land to fund public land acquisitions and recreation projects.

"There was a desire to spend more of the resources in the urban communities," Olson said. "A lot of money had been spent in the U.P., so this was an attempt to try to balance it off."

It wasn't a simple process. Many Detroiters disapproved, adamantly, of the state taking control of the beloved city asset. In fact, the City Council in January 2013, voted to reject the idea. But Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, pushed the lease through.

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The DNR entered into a 30-year lease with the city to operate Belle Isle, with two 15-year renewal options.

"We were going to take care of the park, keep it open for the public and develop a clean, safe park," Olson said. "And the city wouldn't be obligated, which relieved their budget. They were spending something like $950,000 a year on Belle Isle operations, not including policing for the park. They could no longer do that."

Trash, bathrooms, leaks were first order of business

Assessing a whole lot of need on the 982-acre island park, state officials started on Belle Isle with the most visible problems.

"First of all, there was a lot of unfortunate litter all over the place," Olson said. "We had a bunch of volunteer groups who came and helped out."Some 60 or 70 trash barrels had fallen into or were thrown into the island's canals. DNR personnel fished them out, then placed trash barrels all around the island, anchored into place. Fixing the park's many closed bathrooms was a simultaneous priority, and the DNR's work on them included young people working with a master plumber through the agency's Summer Youth Employment Program, Olson said."A lot of them had broken toilets, things like that," he said. "There were some that were in very difficult shape. But by spring (2014), we had a lot of the bathrooms back open and clean."

Water leaks needed addressing throughout Belle Isle.

"As the water was gushing, we were wasting treated water from the Detroit Water and Sewer Department," Olson said. "They were paying for water that was leaking out of the pipes. That took a while to get straightened out; we had to hunt down all of the valves."

Speeders averaged 45 mph around Belle Isle

Under Detroit's city ordinance, Belle Isle was supposed to close at 10 p.m. nightly, unless a permitted special event was taking place. In reality, it had activity almost 24 hours a day, and not all of it good.

"There were things that happened late at night — vandalism, crime," Olson said.

The DNR began enforcing park closure hours, with a posted security guard out front. The department worked with the Michigan State Police to enhance security at the park, along with the DNR's own conservation officers. It freed up the cash-strapped Detroit Police Department to better prioritize neighborhood policing.

"We had a very visible law enforcement presence during the day and on weekends, particularly when it was busy," Olson said.

A Michigan Department of Transportation study found the average speed of a car around Belle Isle's perimeter road was 45 mph — 20 mph faster than the posted speed limit of 25. State police began cracking down on the speeding, Olson said.

"Sometimes when they got caught speeding, they would find out there were warrants for (the driver's) arrest," he said. "Slowly but surely, some of those negative activities left the park."

MDOT also brought state gasoline tax funds to make improvements and better maintenance to Belle Isle's Douglas MacArthur Bridge and the island's primary roads. National Park Service grants allowed restoration of the island's sports fields.

A growing 'feeling of more safety'

Christine Hansley, who lives near Belle Isle on Jefferson Avenue and visits the park "all the time," said she's been impressed with the island's transformation under state control.

"I think it's terrific," she said.

"Before, bathrooms weren't always functional and usable. At times it was kind of dicey, whereas now I get a feeling of more safety."

Maria Beth Stanfield is an ambassador for Black Girls RUN! Detroit, a nonprofit group with more than 5,000 members. The group organizes local walks and runs with an aim toward reducing obesity and improving health.

Stanfield said the group frequently conducts its runs on Belle Isle.

"We have to find somewhere safe to go and run, and that's what Belle Isle does for us. We appreciate it," she said.

Olson said he's heard similar feedback from others, and credited Detroit's faith-based community and others for providing input on those initial steps.

"Once you got things cleaned up, it was very evident you could see the change in the environment there once spring (2014) came," he said.

"I think it was a combination of a clean park, a place you could go to the bathroom, a sense of safety. We were meeting people's expectations consistently, and that was the goal."

Restoring the fountain's flows — at a cost

One of the most visible features upon arriving on Belle Isle from the mainland is the large, ornate James Scott Memorial Fountain. The fountain was completed in 1925 and named and paid for by a real estate tycoon prominent in Detroit in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

As the City of Detroit struggled with its mounting debts, the fountain became increasingly difficult to operate and maintain. It didn't operate for years in the 1970s, and only sporadically afterward.

As IndyCar racing came to Belle Isle in 2007, organizers recognized what an iconic backdrop the fountain would allow, and commissioned DTE Energy engineer Robert Carpenter to put it in working order.

"Every year the Grand Prix would run the fountain, and then the city would close it and not run it," Olson said.

"Deciding to keep it running was another thing we made a commitment to. That first year, we ran the fountain into September."

But the base of the fountain is beginning to show disintegration, and its 1920s plumbing and pumps need modernization, Olson said. The estimated cost is $10 million, with the state planning to cover $6 million of the cost and the rest covered through grants and donations.

Buffed-up conservatory set to reopen in 2024

One of Belle Isle's most popular attractions is the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, a 13-acre greenhouse and botanical garden built by Albert Khan in 1904. The facility ha—d received no significant improvements since the 1950s until the DNR in 2019 replaced all of the stunning glass building's steel trusses.

In 2022, the conservatory shut down to allow a $10 million renovation to the building's upper dome. Some $7.5 million of the cost is coming from federal COVID-19 relief funds through the American Rescue Plan Act, with the Belle Isle Conservancy securing a $2.5 million private gift for the remainder. The conservatory is expected to reopen to the public sometime this year.

The casino on the park's west end, built in 1908 and popular for weddings and receptions, also received a $10 million renovation of its roof and interior through ARPA funds.

Aquarium brought back to life — but still needs work

A unique aspect of Belle Isle as a Michigan state park is that many park features are run by different entities: the Dossin Great Lakes Museum run by the Detroit Historical Society; the Nature Center run by the Detroit Zoo; Hype Athletics coordinating athletic fields and work on the park's athletic building; the Detroit Yacht Club and Friends of Detroit Rowing; and the U.S. Coast Guard station.

The Belle Isle Conservancy formed in 2011, consolidating four longstanding Belle Isle support nonprofits: Friends of Belle Isle, the Belle Isle Botanical Society, the Women's Committee and Friends of the Aquarium.

The Belle Isle Aquarium, built in 1904, is the oldest aquarium in the country. The city of Detroit closed it in 2005 amid economic hardship, but the Belle Isle Conservancy, through fundraising efforts, was able to reopen the aquarium in 2012, which it still operates today.

The conservancy also coordinates, recruits and trains volunteers for the aquarium, the Whitcomb Conservatory and other facilities throughout the island, and has raised money for capital improvements to other island infrastructure, including a new roof on the island's stable buildings.

Overall, the conservancy since 2012 has put more than $16 million into projects on Belle Isle, most of that at the aquarium.

"The aquarium has certainly become our signature success. But it's never been our whole focus," said Maud Lyon, a longtime conservancy board member who was named interim president and CEO in October, when founding CEO Michele Hodges left to take over Habitat of Humanity for Oakland County.

But the conservancy faced some economic struggles last year. As the Detroit Grand Prix moved off Belle Isle in 2022 to race in downtown Detroit, race organizers broadened their philanthropy. It meant one of the key revenue sources for the conservancy's $2 million annual budget, the Chevrolet-sponsored Grand Prixmeire, brought in less — $134,000 last year, with $100,000 of that earmarked for improvements to Scott Fountain. The conservancy in years the race was on the island would get between $350,000 and $400,000 from the fundraiser.

Ongoing renovations to the Whitcomb Conservatory prevented the conservancy's annual Garden Party fundraiser there last year as well, Lyon said. Lyon said the conservancy expects a $350,000 to $400,000 budget shortfall from last year, but has $1.7 million in reserve funds to offset it. The organization reduced its 15-person staff by two and is doing other budget-tightening, she said.

"It is the first time we had a shortfall; in 11 years we had never had a deficit," she said. "And we don't expect to have a deficit in 2024."

Many nonprofit organizations are seeing fundraising events less productive than they used to be, and that started before the pandemic, Lyon said. Corporate purchasers of tables at fundraising events are now doing more targeted philanthropy generally, she said.

"Seeing that, we have been shifting to a greater reliance on philanthropy, really looking to individual donors and to foundations," Lyon said, adding that the conservancy's two signature fundraising events, Polish the Jewel in May and the garden party in September, will still go on.

The conservancy last year secured $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding dedicated to a full revamping of the aquarium's HVAC system. Engineering for that project is underway, with requirements that the work be contracted by the end of 2024 and the money spent by 2026.

The conservancy also works to coordinate public engagement on planning such as the DNR's current mobility study for Belle Isle.

"The needs of Belle Isle are so huge," Lyon said. "There was a master plan done by the city starting in the 1990s and finished in the early 2000s, and it then identified about $350 million worth of need. "It's a big lift. There are a lot of deferred maintenance issues on the island. But there's a lot of potential."

The Great Flood of 2019

Not everything has gone seamlessly since Belle Isle became a state park.

In 2019, a Friends of the Detroit River project to improve fish habitat and restore Lake Okanoka on Belle Isle opened up the interior of the island to Detroit River flows. The $5 million project was funded through federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Funds.

But mere weeks later, in April, the rains came, and didn't stop. Record-high water levels on the Great Lakes that summer meant record-high water levels in the Detroit River. The state park was besieged by flooding all spring and summer, causing scores of canceled events, unusable island roads and damage to streets and other features.

"That was all designed and engineered to the historic water levels that had taken place over the years" — not to new, record highs from so-called 100-year storm events, Olson said.

Adding to the problems was the island's Central Avenue, which years ago "wasn't built properly," he said.

"It didn't have the right drainage," Olson said. "So when the water got real high, it trapped the water and created a wetland that shouldn't have been there. It wasn't part of the natural scene."

Scores of trees drowned, a problem further exacerbated by invasive emerald ash borer and oak wilt disease, he said. State officials have since done a fix on Central Avenue "to open up that whole area," Olson said.

"Now it drains the way it is supposed to," he said.

The state has also installed new pumps at the Lake Okanoka spillway, and in the middle of the 2019 purchased an inflatable coffer dam.

"If it does happen again, we will have to manage it, using the coffer dam and other techniques," Olson said.

Future priorities include big boathouse decision

As the DNR plots the future course of Belle Isle as a state park, it is letting those who love the park have their say.

A mobility study suggested two-way traffic on the island — the ability to turn left once arriving on the island off the MacArthur Bridge — would improve access to Belle Isle's west end.

"That was proposed and in public meetings, it was resoundingly rejected," Olson said. "People like the one-way traffic and thought it would create some unintended congestion going two ways.

"We have mothballed that idea. It is no longer being considered."

Olson sees that as a sign that the DNR's process is working on the island, that the public's diverse interests and viewpoints are being heeded.

That's going to be more difficult, however, with the island's boathouse. Built by the Detroit Boat Club in 1902, the 40,000-square-foot building has fallen into considerable disrepair. A city of Detroit study 18 years ago found the building needed more than $26 million in work. The state is now looking at between $40 million and $50 million.

"It's built on pilings over the river; it's built on water, not on ground," Olson said. "It's really got a lot of structural problems to it."

Leased to the Detroit Rowing Club in the mid-1990s, the building was used for weddings and other social events, but eventually, the ceiling on the west side of the boat house collapsed. A structural engineer discovered considerable moisture damage and rot.

"The roof is now compromised," Olson said.

The DNR has received more than 2,000 public comments on the boathouse. "There are a lot of people who are emotionally attached, who said we should retain it. But there are a lot of people too, who chimed in and said that's a lot of money, and it would be better spent on things in the park that would be more usable by the public. Because the boathouse history was more of a separated, exclusive use of the park and not really a public space."

The DNR is assessing next steps with the boathouse. "We haven't come to any conclusions yet," Olson said.

The DNR is continuing work on an off-street biking, running and walking path around the park. Tree-planting continues, as officials work to offset the tree loss from flooding, disease and invasive species.

"There are still some derelict buildings like the old zoo; we would like to repurpose that area, and restore it to a natural area with trails," Olson said.

Good news, bad news: People love Belle Isle

Plans to expand and modernize the popular beach building, and add a splash pad for younger children, is also under consideration, he said. The athletic building is also a target for renovation, he said.

Renovating or replacing the popular giant slide, and modernizing playground equipment throughout the park, are future priorities, Olson said.

"We want to respect the long-term legacy, keep a good balance there. Not overconstruct," he said.

With so many annual visitors, some have suggested expanding parking on the island. But DNR officials don't want to pave even more areas. Managing park capacity remains a challenge at times — the DNR has closed the park influx at times when it's full, to avoid it becoming overrun, unsafe or a compromised experience, Olson said.

"The good news is, people love Belle Isle. The bad news is, people love Belle Isle, and sometimes it gets overpopulated," he said.

Generally, the DNR isn't looking to attract more people or add more amenities to Belle Isle. It sees its mission as retention and restoration.That's fine with nearby resident Hansley.

"That's my green space for living in the city," she said. "It's supposed to be a park — nature-friendly and user-friendly."

Contact Keith Matheny: kmatheny@freepress.com.