Today marks Belle Isle's first year as a Michigan State Park

Editor's note: What a difference a year makes. Despite the negative grandstanding by certain Detroit politicos, who were charging the governor and others as racists and likened them to slaveowners from the Civil War South, Belle Isle has FLOURISHED under the management of the Michigan DNR.

Three years ago this summer I wrote a lengthy essay on the state of Belle Isle. Here's a link to the article. At the end of this post are the videos I produced to accompany that essay. One of those videos is my full interview with two DNR employees, including Parks & Recreation Director Ron Olson, who discussed their plans for refurbishing Belle Isle. It's interesting to revist that interview in light of the following release from the DNR, which illustrates all that they have accomplished in the past year.

Major accomplishments completed, more work under way

Just 12 months into operation as Michigan’s 102nd state park, Belle Isle has seen tangible improvements – from refurbished park shelters and renovated restrooms to universally accessible parking spaces and removal of hazardous trees.

Today (Feb. 10) marks one year since the state assumed management of Belle Isle Park. Many of the revitalization efforts are the direct result of significant investment by state, federal, private and nonprofit partners. Between November 2013 (when the 30-year lease agreement with the city of Detroit was signed) through the end of the state’s fiscal year Sept. 30, 2014, nearly $12 million was invested in Belle Isle, including $1.56 million in grant funding. Individuals and groups – including 350 Michigan Cares for Tourism supporters and a metro-area Boy Scout troop – gave more than 10,000 valuable volunteer hours, committing their time and resources to the island’s success.

“Partnerships are absolutely key to the long-term success of Belle Isle,” said DNR Director Keith Creagh. “It’s exciting to see everyone coming together for the betterment of this natural resources gem, and gratifying to watch that hard work result in a world-class Belle Isle visitor experience.”

Under the city-state agreement, the Michigan DNR manages Belle Isle in a manner consistent with its award-winning state park system. Roads and bridges are maintained in partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation. Beyond these two departments, many agencies and organizations at the local, county, state and federal level play major roles, including the Michigan State Police, which assists in keeping Belle Isle safe.

“Our goal is to ensure a quality recreational experience at Belle Isle Park,” said Ron Olson, DNR chief of parks and recreation. “Working in partnership, we’re committed to making Belle Isle a clean and safe park for everyone.”

Highlights from Belle Isle’s first year as a state park include:

Strong support. In addition to the DNR and MDOT, Creagh cited the commitment of several agencies and organizations including the City of Detroit, the Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee, the Greening of Detroit, the Belle Isle Conservancy and federal agencies. Earlier in 2014, dozens of supporting organizations committed to being “All in for Belle Isle” and that list continues to grow.

Attendance. Since June 1, 2014, when MDOT began counting vehicles via a traffic monitor on MacArthur Bridge (the entryway to Belle Isle), the island park has welcomed more than 2 million visitors. Attendance statistics at major island attractions show strong attendance. Attendance at the Belle Isle Aquarium  was up 125 percent over the previous year, while the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory was up 91 percent; the Dossin Great Lakes Museum increased 89 percent (though it wasn’t open a full 12 months in 2013 due to restoration efforts); and the Belle Isle Nature Zoo saw a 12-percent increase.

Employment opportunities. By last summer, the DNR’s summer youth employment program was realigned to focus on Belle Isle, including the renovation and reopening of several public restrooms by The Youth Connections, Inc. and Healthy Kidz of Detroit. Such initiatives also were central to the installation of universally accessible sidewalks and parking spaces near several park shelters, completed in partnership with the Michigan Concrete Association, which provided training, materials coordination and work oversight. Davey Tree Service trained nearly a dozen young adults from The Youth Connection to perform horticultural work in the Belle Isle Conservatory’s outdoor formal gardens. Youth from the MDOT Youth Corp and Jewish Vocational Services participated in revitalization efforts during the past year, and a veterans group – through a Michigan State University return-to-work program – made significant repairs to the Kids’ Row playscape.

Equipment/facility improvements. The fountain operated daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day. Visitors also saw plenty of park upgrades, including 12 public restrooms and eight park shelter renovations; a new kids’ swim area with an enhanced buoy safety system and water-safety signage at the swim beach; 50 refurbished picnic tables; the addition of 200 refuse barrels (with “Keep Belle Isle Beautiful” wraps) set on anchors around the island; and an overall effort to keep the park clean.

Beautification and safety efforts. To make the park safe, more than 350 hazardous trees were removed from maintained areas of the park. A volunteer effort, with funds from a United States Forest Service grant, saw to the November replanting of 120 flowering cherry trees, lost to disease and age, near the Scott Memorial Fountain basin.

Creative programming. Looking for new ways to welcome visitors to Belle Isle, the park offered a variety of new recreation and learning opportunities, including the opening of a disc golf course; free swimming lessons for all ages as part of the DNR’s Recreation 101 “how to” classes; wildlife programming; and the Belle Isle Harvest Festival.

According to Michele Hodges, chair of the Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee, the December 2013 “All in for Belle Isle” partnership kickoff set the tone for this year-one success. “It’s been all about collaboration and commitment for the preservation of our island jewel,” Hodges said. “The DNR has played a key role in ensuring the park’s longevity and has been an exceptional addition to the corps of committee members, individuals and organizations – including the city of Detroit – who are committed to the park.”

Looking ahead in 2015, work will continue on current projects such as restroom repairs, and additional work  will focus on replacing critical heating and ventilation systems in major park facilities, enhancing recreation facilities and structures, strategic replanting of trees, improving key trails and renovating the athletic complex. This work will align with the Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee’s strategic plan, which includes the following goals: a safe and clean park; customer-oriented thinking; stewardship and community spaces; partnership and alliances; and continuous improvement.

Beginning this month, a Recreation Passport is required for all vehicles entering Belle Isle – $11 for vehicles, $5 for motorcycles. For non-Michigan-registered vehicles, a $9 daily motor vehicle permit is available, as well as a $31 annual motor vehicle permit. The Recreation Passport grants vehicle entry to all 102 Michigan state parks.

For more about Belle Isle – including event information, Recreation Passport purchase, vendor information and shelter reservations – visit

Follow us on Twitter @MichiganDNR and @BelleIsle_Park. We encourage Belle Isle partners and others interested in the park's revitalization to use the hashtag #AllinforBelleIsle.