Michigan has long been known for its natural resources management, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has long been a leader, nationally, in game and fish management. But now, the DNR is being lauded for something completely different: urban outdoor recreation. Detroit recently hosted the annual convention of National Association of State Outdoor Recreation Liaison Officers. Representatives from 38 states – and the territory of Samoa – were treated to a tour of a number of recreational facilities operated by the DNR, or at least partially funded by various DNR grants. To a person, they were impressed. Roger Knowlton, the Omaha, Nebraska-based chief of recreation grants for the Land and Water Conservation Fund – which is administered by the National Park Service – said it isn’t unusual for states to spend some of the grant money they receive from the park service in urban areas, but the scale of the DNR’s commitment to Detroit was significant. Knowlton, who was once responsible for Michigan as a regional official, said he was here a couple of years back when the park service awarded a grant to Belle Isle for new athletic fields. He likes visiting the “Mitten State,” he said, and was impressed with both Belle Isle Park and the Outdoor Adventure Center which is located in downtown Detroit not far from the Riverwalk.
“They’ve done a lot of work here, you can tell,” said Knowlton, who first saw Belle Isle as the DNR was taking over administration of the island park. “Just coming across the bridge – the lights work and they’re all lined up straight. “Ron (Olson, chief of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division) said they’ve still got a lot of work to do, but to just look at the conservatory, wow, it’s beautiful. But just by seeing what’s out here, you can tell this place is going to get a lot of visitors.”
Knowlton said he sees it getting better, too, as the 2014 grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund hasn’t been spent yet. “It took a long time for them to get their grant money,” he said. “That’s a federal-bureaucracy type of thing.” But Knowlton was even more impressed by the Outdoor Adventure Center. “When I first saw it two years ago, when they were discussing what they wanted to do, I could tell they were really excited,” he said. “Now, to see everything they talked about come to life, it’s great. I don’t know how they got everything done.” Meanwhile, Tamaaiga Pili Gaoteote, the representative from American Samoa, was enchanted by the Riverwalk. “I’d really like to do something like this in Samoa,” he said. “It’s lovely. Beautiful.” Steve DeBrabander, manager of the grants section at the DNR, hosted the event. A member of NASORLO’s board of directors and alternate state liaison officer (DNR director Keith Creagh is the actual liaison officer), DeBrabander said bringing the group to Detroit seemed like a “no-brainer.” “I was very excited to get some of my cohorts from all over the country to Detroit so they could see some of the great things happening in Detroit,” DeBrabander said. “Public outdoor recreation is one of the things that is helping Detroit in its comeback. There are so many good things happening in Detroit – especially regarding outdoor recreation -- that this would be a great place to bring all these people.” DeBrabander’s hunch paid off.
Tom Reilly, a conference attendee from the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department said he was “very impressed” by Detroit. “I’ve never been here before and I had this impression that it was bombed-out and unsafe,” he said. “But people have really been super friendly. “Our department doesn’t have a similar presence in Montana. The cities carry the load in their urban communities. But we don’t have the urban centers like this; our state population just broke a million for the first time a year ago. “I’m very impressed with what your parks division did in a very short time period. You guys did a great job. What a resource for people in Detroit who don’t have green grass – all this big open space and water. It’s beautiful.” Reilly said he was taken with the Outdoor Adventure Center. “We have one like this Helena, the state capital, that’s mostly about wildlife, but it’s not nearly as extensive,” he said. “These things are a gateway to getting people outdoors –very impressive.” DeBrabander said Reilly’s reaction was not unusual among the conferees. “I had a lot of participants from around the country tell me that it changed their perception of Detroit,” he said. “That was one of the goals of having the conference here and it was extremely successful.
There were a lot of comments about how great the hospitality was and how friendly the people were. A lot of people indicated they had no idea how nice Detroit is, especially the riverfront.” DeBrabander said he struck up a conversation with an attendee from Georgia who said her son had been offered an internship in downtown Detroit, but she was reluctant to give him her blessing to take it. However, DeBrabander said that after attending the conference, she said that not only is she going to encourage her son to take the internship, but she’d like to be able to work in Detroit herself. That was another of the goals the DNR had in hosting the conference, to show other recreation professionals – most of whom work in parks divisions at their agencies – that world-class outdoor recreation is possible in urban settings, especially in places that have the kind of natural resources Michigan is blessed with – places like Detroit.