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Detroit Plans to Lease Belle Isle Park to the State

Detroit purchased Belle Isle in 1879 for $200,000, and in 1883, Frederick Law Olmstead created the master plan for the island. The island sits within the Detroit River, a 28-mile long busy freighter traffic waterway that separates Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. The island has great views of Detroit, Windsor, Ontario and the Ambassador Bridge.

What does a city do when it can't afford to operate one of its parks? The Detroit Free Press reports Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Gov. Rick Snyder propose giving the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) a 30-year lease to operate Belle Isle as a state park. Such a deal would funnel millions in state park funding to care for the park and make improvements. MDNR currently operates 98 Michigan state parks.

Rent will not be paid on the lease, as operation, maintenance and improvements will be considered the city's compensation.

MDNR would supplement state park funds by issuing bonds. A $10 annual vehicle pass (for entry in all state parks) would also bring in additional dollars. Pedestrians and bicyclists can go onto the island without charge.

The proposal seems to make good financial sense, as the city cannot afford to properly take care of or upgrade the park. Upgrading the park would also be an impetus to spur revitalization of Detroit's riverfront.

Despite the enthusiasm of the mayor and governor for the plan, two members of the Detroit City Council held a rally to protest the plan. One concern is the length of the lease. The length of the lease is to allow issuance of bonds. Some city officials would like to have a stipulation that would allow the city to back out of the lease agreement at some future date.

Besides more frequent maintenance, Belle Isle needs new lighting, bridge repairs and major landscaping. George Jackson, president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., which helped negotiate the lease agreement, estimates it will take several million dollars just to repair the restrooms and playgrounds.

If the state gets the lease, 36 city workers assigned to Belle Isle would be redeployed to other Detroit parks.

An 11-member advisory council would oversee the lease. It will consist of five representatives appointed by the governor, three by the mayor, two by the city council and a committee chair jointly appointed by the governor and mayor.

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November 13, 2019, 7:20 pm PDT

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