Belle Isle Part III: An Uncertain Future

Author's note: This is the third of a three-part series that I wrote for the newspapers I work for in Metro Detroit. On Friday, Aug. 31, the series started with a look at "Belle Isle's Celebrated Past", and was followed on Saturday, Sept. 1 with "Belle Isle's Troubled Present".  Two other videos are also available for you: the first is my full interview with Keith Flournoy, the current Belle Isle Park Manager. The second video is my full interview with Brice Ross and Ron Olson. Bruce is a Field Operations Manager with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Parks & Recreation Division. Ron is the Director of the DNR's Parks & Rec Division.

An Uncertain Future
The likely future of Belle Isle is spelled out in 71 words on Page 60 of the Financial Stability Agreement between the State of Michigan and the City of Detroit.

Listed as a bullet item between the Riverfront and the Fairgrounds, the landmark consent agreement directs the state to negotiate a long-term lease with the city and assume operational management of Belle Isle. The city would retain ownership, but the Michigan Department of Natural Resources would assume control.

In plain English, Belle Isle would become a state park.

Detroit City Councilman Kwame Kenyatta at a "Save Belle
Isle" rally on Aug. 1. Kenyatta is among those who are
opposed to Belle Isle becoming a state park.
There are many who welcome that possibility; there are others who vehemently protest what they perceive as a state takeover of yet another city-owned asset. The first lease agreement was rejected by the city council, mostly due to the length of the 99-year contract.

“What is a 99-year lease? Come on, what is that? Ninety-nine years is a lifetime,” said Detroit Councilman Kwame Kenyatta. “A 99-year lease is ownership; that is control.”

Kenyatta and fellow council members Brenda Jones and Joann Watson hosted a rally in support of city-ownership of Belle Isle on Aug. 1. Kenyatta, Jones and Watson, along with several pastors, said the park is “not for sale.” The 200-strong crowd was implored to have tents ready to “occupy Belle Isle” should the state attempt to take control of it.

In the meantime, city and state officials continue negotiating terms of a lease agreement. It is possible that any such agreement might be done before Oct. 1, which is when the next DNR fiscal year begins.

Those who support Belle Isle as a state park and those who would rather the city maintain control over it both have very definite reasons.

“I believe that Belle Isle is a gem, and I believe the city of Detroit should keep Belle Isle,” said Maggie Hall of Detroit. “We have lost so much over the years that I feel this is something we should be able to hold onto, to keep it in the community and keep it as it is. People say that Belle Isle is not taken care of. Well, I’ve been to several parks around the state of Michigan, and Belle Isle is a gem. No other park can compare to it.”

Margaret Habba, who grew up in Highland Park and now lives in Sterling Heights, said she used to take three buses as a child to get to Belle Isle, which she said was her “oasis.”

“It was beautiful,” she said. “My favorite spot was here (in the Formal Gardens) and by the clock tower and we’d play in the trees and have a little picnic. Life was really hard then. This was the place that gave me a lot of joy and peace and comfort. It’s just a beautiful island, and I’d love to see it completely restored.”

The controversy exists because the city of Detroit cannot afford the upkeep on the island. The state, instead of writing a check, is helping Detroit by offering some of its services. Since Michigan operates the largest state park system in the country, state officials believed it could take on Belle Isle.

DNR officials have been to the park several times, assessing its conditions and assembling a priority list. Ron Olson, director the DNR’s Parks & Recreation Division, said they’ve gathered input from a variety of sources to help with their assessment, including current park staff, the Belle Isle Conservancy volunteer group and “specific experts were brought in to look at the buildings, structures, roads and other things.”

Olson also mentioned a master plan is a resource for their assessment. The plan, conducted by Hamilton Anderson & Associates of Detroit in 1996-97 and revised in 2005, offers a comprehensive analysis of the island’s conditions, plus a stunning, yet aggressive, renovation plan. The cost for implementing the master plan in 2005 was estimated at over $248 million.

Obviously, the city was not at a point to commit that amount money to such a project. Apparently neither is the state. As Olson said, the DNR is not sitting on a pile of money. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t improvements the DNR could make.

“Like any park, there’s always things that need attention (and) things that are difficult,” Olson said, mentioning the park’s deteriorating buildings specifically. “There are some leaky roofs and some problems. There are obviously some restroom facilities on the island for whatever reasons are not able to be open. We’re trying to figure out ways they could be restored.”

Other items Olson added to the list included cleaning up the canals, clearing fallen trees and a general “sprucing up” of the public spaces, such as trash pickup, replacing lights, removing graffiti. All are typical problems found at any park, he said, but especially one struggling with a lack of resources.

Finding additional revenue is exactly what Belle Isle needs, said Flournoy, the current park manager. His solution is to charge a fee for all visitors who come to the island. He said he understands the opposition to such a fee, but he challenges those against the idea to “come sit in my seat and see what I do and see what I see. See the number of people who come across that bridge and all the good that that money would do.”

In fact, if and when Belle would become a state park would mean an entry fee would be put in place. The DNR funds its state parks through the Recreation Passport program, which is an optional $10 annual charge anytime people purchase or renew a license plate through the Secretary of State’s Office. Just like other state parks, visitors to Belle Isle would be required to have the Recreation Passport for entry. DNR officials have said in the past they would delay that requirement for Belle Isle.

Bruce Ross, field operations manager for the DNR’s Parks & Recreation Division, might figure in prominently if and when Belle Isle was to become a state park. Ross grew up in Detroit, went to Belle Isle quite often with his relatives —- and by himself — and has a definite vision of what Belle Isle could offer to the community.

“When I was a kid, Belle Isle was my learning institute,” Ross said. “I used to go there and spend the whole day there. There was one time in the summer when I went out to Belle Isle and collected my leaves and looked at the tadpoles and looked at the insects out there and lost track of time. My mom drove out to retrieve me. I remember I was coming across the bridge and here’s my mother, she was driving a 1970 Valiant. She was driving right behind (me) and she says, ‘You know, it’s time to come home.’ But she didn’t yell at me, though, because she knew that’s where I was at and I was having fun.”

Ross envisions a Belle Isle that would be the same respite, the same “learning institute,” for other children as it was for him. He sees partnerships with Detroit and other school districts for students to discover nature through Belle Isle.

“Belle Isle is personal for me,” he said. “I look forward to any way I can enhance this beautiful jewel.”

Belle Isle has found itself a pawn in the chess match between the state and the city. And until that is resolved — and regardless of where those resources come from and who puts them to use — there are some who say we could be looking at the slow demise of Belle Isle right before our eyes. This is an unfortunate reality, despite the valiant efforts of current park employees, an army of volunteers and a regional and statewide population that agree on the ends, but not the means.