Michigan DNR: Partnerships key to revitalizing Belle Isle

Author's note: Do not underestimate the significance of the Michigan DNR's revitalization of Belle Isle. It MUST succeed, and for so many reasons on so many levels. First and foremost, the island park in the Detroit River is a sanctuary that must be restored. That it was allowed to sink to the depths of its current condition is inexcusable. Secondly, a vocal element of Detroit, although a minority, strongly criticize the state's interventions into city matters (unless it's to write a check). If and when the DNR succeeds in bringing back Belle Isle, and Detroiters and others flock to the island, then this minority element will be silenced. On a side note, at the end of this post are the four videos I created last summer that offer a nice look at Belle Isle's past, present and future. The fourth video is my complete interview with two DNR officials, including Ron Olson, chief of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is “All in for Belle Isle.”
(Michigan DNR photos)
It takes a community to raise a park

Belle Isle’s 90-day transition to becoming Michigan’s 102nd state park began just over a month ago, and revitalization efforts are well underway. At the culmination of the transition period on Feb. 10, 2014, the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will assume management of the island park while the city of Detroit maintains ownership. 

The DNR has been working to ensure a smooth transition, with the goal of enhancing the world-class park for the residents of Detroit and Michigan.

“How are we going to accomplish this?” asked Rodney Stokes, special advisor to Gov. Rick Snyder, during the “All in for Belle Isle” event held Dec. 10 on the island. “One word: partnerships.” 

This one word is a key to success at the historic island park. The DNR, city of Detroit and Belle Isle Conservancy, hosts of the “All in for Belle Isle” partnership event, sounded a call to organizations and individuals with a passion for Belle Isle.

“Everybody, Detroiter or not, knows about Belle Isle,” Detroit Mayor Dave Bing said at the event. “The big thing here … is how many people are willing to come together to change Belle Isle into a beacon we can gather around.”

DNR Parks and Recreation Division employees replace
the roof on a picnic shelter on Belle Isle. Work like this is
already underway during Belle Isle’ 90-day transition to
becoming Michigan’s 102nd state park.
More than 40 organizations – including businesses, nonprofit groups and representatives from local, state and national government – came together on Belle Isle during the event to pledge commitments to island revitalization. Dozens more have contacted the DNR, with more calls coming in daily, pledging contributions ranging from volunteer assistance to funding and resources.

“I’m very pleased that the state saw value in this park and was willing to help us revitalize this park and this city,” Bing said. “We are very pleased and thankful. This is another great day for the city of Detroit.”

Nearly a month before the event, the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board accepted a lease approved by Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Gov. Rick Snyder, DNR Director Keith Creagh and Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Director Kirk Steudle. The lease guides state management of the park. It provides for an initial 30-year term with two 15-year renewals.

State management of the island will save Detroit an estimated $4 million to $6 million a year.

In addition, the state will invest in the island through a variety of sources, including grants, bonds and donations from private and nonprofit organizations willing to partner in the park’s revitalization. Many of these partners – including The Youth Connection, Healthy Kidz, the Belle Isle Conservancy and WH Canon, Inc. with the Michigan Green Industry Association, among others – have already begun revitalization efforts on the island.

Members of DNR youth employment program restore a restroom
on Belle Isle. Youth efforts are a big part of the island park’s
revitalization plans.
In late fall, Detroit youth and young adults, through youth employment initiatives made possible by Healthy Kidz and The Youth Connection, completed restoration of the Oxbow Comfort Station on Belle Isle. They worked to install new restroom fixtures, paint the facility and make much-needed repairs.

“In the last two months, we have had 10 youth from The Youth Connection Career Academies and Healthy Kidz work to renovate and restore one of the comfort stations on the island,” said Dr. Grenae Dudley, The Youth Connection president and CEO. “Our youth are sweating pipes, installing temperature-controlled sinks and a hot water tank. They’ve learned plumping, masonry and painting.

“We will bring youth who can work in their own backyard on this beautiful island because we are committed to restoring and renovating and providing exceptional customer service,” she said.

DNR Forest Resources Division employees chip the
0remaining branches of felled trees on Belle Isle.
During the second week of December alone, 200 hazardous trees were felled and some ground to mulch using a horizontal wood grinder, provided courtesy of Mid-Michigan Recycling. A shelter was re-roofed, several dozen picnic tables were refurbished with replacement boards and posts were placed in-ground to serve as refuse barrel anchors.

According to Ron Olson, chief of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, immediate park improvement efforts will address low-hanging fruit so the public can have a safe and comfortable park visit. Open and restored restrooms, enjoyable picnic areas and cleared trails are just some of the areas that will be handled first. Hazardous tree removal is also on the priority list. Trees at risk of falling or dropping large limbs will be removed to increase the safety of Belle Isle visitors and to protect buildings and bridges.

Additional low-hanging fruit, according to Olson, includes refuse management, picnic shelter repairs, and staff hiring, which is already in progress. Assessments will also be conducted on the storm water, electrical, water, sanitary and security systems, in addition to a playground equipment assessment for quantity, safety and location. 

The Recreation Passport, which offers access to all Michigan state parks and recreation areas across the state, will be needed for entry to Belle Isle beginning Feb. 10. Since the Passport is tied directly to vehicle license plate registrations, and not individuals, the Passport can be purchased during license plate registration renewal with the Secretary of State.

After cutting down many hazardous trees at Belle Isle,
DNR Forest Resources personnel stack up the remains.
The requirement will be introduced gradually. From February 2014 to January 2015, vehicles will not need a Recreation Passport until the date of their vehicle registration renewal. For example, if the vehicle registration is renewed with the Secretary of State in May 2014, then the vehicle will not need a Passport for island access until May 2014. Once purchased, it is good until the next license plate registration renewal date. Recreation Passports can also be purchased on the island after the transition.

The Recreation Passport, which currently costs $11 for Michigan registered vehicles and $5 for motorcycles, does not apply to individuals. Pedestrians, bicyclists and those using public transportation can enter the park for free. During the transition period, the DNR will be coordinating with the Detroit Department of Transportation to re-establish a bus route to Belle Isle.

It’s another example of working together and through partnerships for the betterment of Belle Isle. “People have heard it takes a village to raise a child,” the DNR’s Olson said. “We’re saying that it takes a big community to raise a park.”

Learn more about the transition and future plans for the park at www.belleislepark.org.