Transition begins for Michigan DNR to assume management of Belle Isle as a state park

Author's note: Last summer, for my full-time job at a newspaper chain with several newspapers outside Detroit, I did a lengthy article, along with several videos, on the state of Belle Isle titled Belle Isle: Celebrated past, troubling present & uncertain future. At the risk of sounding immodest, the article and videos won several awards and does a very good job of explaining how the island park, once a glowing jewel of a celebrated city, became an unsustainable afterthought for a city mired in bankruptcy.

Detroit’s historic Belle Isle Park will begin a transition to becoming Michigan’s 102nd state park, following action Tuesday by the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board.

The board accepted a lease approved by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Keith Creagh, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Director Kirk Steudle and Gov. Rick Snyder. 

Belle Isle's canals were a popular recreational outlet for
Detroiters in the early 20th century.
The lease will guide state management of the park. 

Under the lease terms, the city maintains ownership of Belle Isle while the DNR assumes responsibility for managing Belle Isle according to the high standards of its award-winning state park system. The Michigan Department of Transportation will assume responsibility for roads and bridges on Belle Isle.

“This is a city-state partnership that makes good sense for the future of Belle Isle and the people of Detroit,” said Gov. Rick Snyder. “Everyone wants this Detroit gem to offer a clean, safe and welcoming park environment, while lessening the financial burden on the city. Those are the driving principles behind this agreement.”

State management of the island will save Detroit an estimated $4 million a year. In addition, the state will invest in the island through a variety of sources, including grants, bonds and donations from private organizations willing to partner in the park’s revitalization. 

The Aquarium and Conservatory are landmark buildings of
Belle Isle. 
The Emergency Loan Board’s action begins a 90-day transition period that is outlined in the lease. 

The DNR’s initial short-term action items include: 
  • Meeting with Detroit’s recently elected city council members and mayor to establish an open and productive line of communication;
  • Meeting with a soon-to-be-established advisory committee, the Belle Isle Conservancy and other key stakeholder groups;
  • Evaluating all current contracts, leases and concession agreements;
  • Updating previous infrastructure assessment information to prioritize critical needs;
  • Establishing a visible staffing and visitor services presence throughout Belle Isle; and
  • Coordinating with local, regional and state law enforcement agencies on a security plan. 
The lease provides for an initial 30-year term with two 15-year renewals. A seven-member committee established in the lease will advise the state on improvements and master planning for the park. A minimum of three members of the committee will be residents of the city of Detroit. The state will work cooperatively with the Belle Isle Conservancy and other partners, in collaboration with the advisory committee, to develop and improve the park.

The water garden between the Aquarium and Conservatory.
The Recreation Passport, which offers access to all Michigan state parks and recreation areas across the state, will be required for entry to Belle Isle immediately following the 90-day transition period. The Passport does not apply to individuals. Pedestrians, bicyclists and those using public transportation can enter the park for free and will not need the Passport. The Passport, which currently costs $11 for Michigan registered vehicles and $5 for motorcycles, is a per-vehicle charge. When purchased through the Secretary of State during license plate registration renewal, it is good until the next license plate registration renewal. It will also be available for purchase at the park. Because the Recreation Passport will be a new requirement to access Belle Isle in a vehicle, the requirement will be phased in for park visitors. The Recreation Passport will be required commencing on the date the license plate is due for renewal. Visit for more information on the program.

Park revenue from permit fees, rental fees, special events, grants, endowments and other sources that derive from Belle Isle – excluding Recreation Passport revenue – will be placed in a special sub-account in the Department of Natural Resources State Park Improvement Fund to administer, maintain and improve the park. The balance of that sub-account will transfer to the city upon lease termination. 

Detroit's financial problems has meant staff and budget
cuts for Belle Isle. The result has been maintenance on
the island has lapsed.
In a letter to the Emergency Loan Board dated Oct. 21, 2013, DNR Director Creagh clarified concerns raised by members of the Detroit City Council in a communication to the Loan Board on Oct. 14. Creagh’s letter:
  • Explained the need for an initial 30-year term in the lease. Creagh clarified that the 30-year term is crucial to securing grants and other funding streams for improvements on the island. Most state and federal grants require the applicant to have control of the property for a minimum of 20 years to 30 years.
  • Emphasized that the DNR, which has considerable expertise in managing historic sites – the state historian is housed within the DNR – will apply its expertise to Belle Isle, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Underscored the DNR’s commitment to families and youth. The DNR will maintain Belle Isle as a gathering place for families, including family reunions. In addition, the DNR operates programs that employ young people in state parks and recreation areas. The department intends to continue and expand those programs on Belle Isle.
  • Promised to undertake outreach efforts to Detroit-based businesses to help those businesses navigate the state’s bidding process.
  • Promised to work with Detroit agencies named by the council to make sure Detroit residents are given every opportunity to apply for jobs at the state-managed park.
  • Committed to undertaking improvements on the island as outlined in the lease. 
“We are excited to partner with the city, mayor and city council to help revitalize this important community gathering place,” said Creagh. “The Detroit region is important to Michigan’s long-term economic stability and tourism appeal. A revitalized Belle Isle will be a major player in that comeback.”