Belle Isle: How to manage Detroit's island beauty

When it comes to our island, we Detroiters get way passionate. And who could blame us? The in-the-river, Olmsted-designed, really-that-close-to-Canada, many-things-to-many-people Belle Isle is, without a doubt, one of Detroit's best loved and most used assets.

People love the island, but with love comes responsibility.

That's precisely why Belle Isle deserves a nuanced conversation as to its funding and management -- not one that begins and ends at whether or not there should be an entrance fee or become a Huron-Clinton Metropark. Those are two ideas worth exploring, and they've dominated the public discourse since Mayor Bing brought up the island's future a few weeks ago in a news interview. However, there are many options to consider for preserving, protecting and enhancing Detroit's island park.

Just the facts

Before deciding "how Belle Isle should be run," let's get a handle on what we're, well, handling. Native Americans first used the island to keep their pigs and chickens safe from coyotes on the mainland -- hence its original name Hog Island or Ile au Cochons. The British, ever the nice guys, purchased it from the Ojibwa and Ottawa in 1769 for eight barrels of rum, some tobacco and vermilion, and a wampum belt.

After some back-and-forth between the British and bouts of island-dwelling French, the Brits took full possession in 1777. Detroit took ownership a century later and hired famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to create a park there in 1873. The park primarily follows his direction, although many of the buildings that the island is most known for were not in Olmsted's plan

The island is nearly 1,000 acres -- almost double its original size thanks to land added during the city's heyday from materials dug up when many of Downtown's buildings were going up. In comparison, Metro Beach is about 800 acres, Kensington Metropark is 4,500 acres and the city's biggest park, Rouge Park, is 1,200 acres.

Some of the island's more iconic features include the conservatory, aquarium, casino, the Detroit Yacht Club, the Detroit Boat Club, beach, Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse, Scott Fountain, Nancy Brown Peace Carillon, Remick Music Shell, Nature Zoo, woods, athletic playing fields, White House, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Coast Guard Station and the Eero Saarinen-designed Flynn Pavilion. Not to mention the numerous playgrounds, picnic shelters, sculptures, canals, fishing piers, paths and bridges all over the island.

This inventory is incomplete at best, which demonstrates the challenge that the City of Detroit has in funding and managing Belle Isle. The needs of people and nature and architectural preservation don't always add up; add in a shrinking tax base, struggling Recreation Department and ever tightening budget and you've got yourself a quandary.

The importance of being planned

In 1999, Hamilton Anderson Associates created a master plan for Belle Isle that inventoried and assessed what was already there. It called for some major changes, such as eliminating vehicle traffic from the center of the island. The plan was updated in 2004.

So what's the problem? The plan has never been adopted by the city. Janet Anderson, author of Island in the City: How Belle Isle Changed Detroit Forever, says this is exactly why there's an enormous concrete paddock visible almost immediately after you cross the MacArthur Bridge and arrive on the island. The paddock was necessary to stage the rebirth of the Detroit Grand Prix, which, as we all know, lasted a whole two years. "A perfect example of why we need a long-term plan," she says. "It's about priority setting."

With an approved master plan, anyone with a part to play in the future of Belle Isle would know the direction in which it's headed -- no matter how low or high that year's annual budget, whether there's a new park manager or mayor, or what a gung-ho civic leader has in mind. There would be a road map in place that everyone could follow. Not on the plan? Sorry dude, that slab of concrete's not going to happen.

Show me the money

Once there's a plan in place, funding the capital improvements and day-to-day operations necessary to execute it would come next. The most common funding mechanism bandied about town is collecting a toll to get on the island. Turns out, there's a couple of problems with that at the moment.

First, what does it cost to collect a fee? There's manning the booth, accounting, security. These might seem minor, but are still worth a mention and some thought.

The second issue is thornier. Any fees collected for Belle Isle would go into a general pot of money, not (as conversation would lead you to believe) into a dedicated Belle Isle account. For example, fees collected today for rental of the Casino go into a general recreation fund -- not back to the island. Until Belle Isle has its own pot, toll-collecting is pretty much moot.

Anderson thinks a dedicated fund for Belle Isle is absolutely imperative. "You live within your means, and it is easier to leverage it," she says. "People will give donations, (leave money in their) wills, when they know it will be used for a certain purpose and not commingled."

Perhaps the most famous example of this is Central Park in New York City -- another Olmsted-designed park. New York spends a specific amount on its maintenance and operations based on a formula that measures expenditures and revenues in the park. No other park can access those funds.

On top of competing for money with other parks, Belle Isle is competing with every other line item in the city budget. Anderson, whose day job is as a policy analyst for the city's budget department, says that the Recreation Department had a budget of $53 million in 2004-05. It's now $25 million, which brings up two points: First, while it may seem easy to knock city employees, they're doing a tough job with a reduced staff and slashed funds. Secondly, as Anderson so succinctly puts it: "When recreation competes with police, it loses every time."

Parks and rec

Currently, Belle Isle is managed like any other Detroit city park, a trend counter to that in other cities.

Back to Central Park. In 1998, the City of New York officially contracted with the Central Park Conservancy for improvements and maintenance of the park. The Conservancy has been around since 1980, doing what it could, but the sanctioned relationship allowed for more vigorous fundraising and structured operations. Since then, every time the contract gets renewed, the city has typically given the conservancy more responsibility and fewer restrictions. Translation: it's working.

Another structure to check (and there are lots -- check out Park Practices for case studies from around the country) is Atlanta's Piedmont Park. The Piedmont Park Conservancy was founded in 1989 and has a story similar to that of the Central Park Conservancy. Initially focused on capital improvements, the organization has gradually been entrusted with more and more day-to-day operations, including security and an estimated 85% of maintenance, like grass cutting and bathroom cleaning.

Locally, this model has already been put to work at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Historical Museum and Eastern Market. The Eastern Market Corp. assumed responsibility for the city-owned market in 2007. Eastern Market Corp. president Dan Carmody thinks a similar arrangement would benefit Belle Isle. "This is what happens when you have a nonprofit charged with running a facility: It has a singular focus that, say, the recreation department can never hope to have," he says. "You can tailor specific projects to the specific interests of (funders) who would want to see that developed -- it's a better way to marshal the community's resources."

This is complicated stuff, with no single right answer. Take the nature trail on the east end of the island that's a left turn past the lighthouse. The area is natural habitat for snakes and birds and, until recently, was primarily used for walking with binoculars or a dog and fishing -- for the few anglers willing to walk almost a mile with their gear. Over the last couple of years, it has been transformed into a popular swimming area (I've, erm, heard it derisively referred to as "Hipster Hole").

On one hand, a whole new generation is being introduced to the wonders of Belle Isle, and they're having fun. On the other, do bonfires and parties have a place in a (supposedly) protected area?

I don't know the answer, but I'm asking the question. And I'm anxious for the day -- I do believe it is coming -- that a plan to adequately fund and progressively care for Belle Isle is in place.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is Model D's development news editor and is pretty much obsessed with Belle Isle and the Detroit River. For proof, read her previous stories on Belle Isle sports, fishing; a tug boat, swimming, and kayaking. Send feedback here.
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