Detroit Fights Michigan for Control of Fraying Belle Isle

Detroit Fights Michigan for Control of Jewel-Like Belle Isle as
Belle Isle is a 983-acre island in the Detroit River, a city park considered a "jewel" by those who remember its heyday -- when it wasn't in disrepair and a state of neglect. It's landscape was shaped by Frederick Olmstead, who designed New York' Central Park. You can watch Great Lakes freighters slip by on the Canadian side, and the view of downtown Detroit is special. It embodies the fight over who's going to control Detroit. Photographer: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Detroit’s Belle Isle park reminds Shalon Turner of peace, family and days when the city had money to mow the grass, keep the 108-year-old aquarium open and fix the toilets.

“Most people in Detroit, when you mention Belle Isle, it makes them smile,” said Turner, 46, gazing across the Detroit River to the skyline on a sultry afternoon. “It’s the first place they think of for a picnic or reunion. This is Detroit’s crown jewel.”

The gem is tarnished, however, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder wants to place the 983-acre island under state control, charge an entry fee and create a lure for young people to move into a city that’s lost one-fourth of its population since 2000.

Snyder’s plan embodies a larger conflict over control of a mostly black, Democratic city that’s resisted takeover by a state government dominated by white Republicans like Snyder. The governor has said he would rather not appoint an emergency manager, and that the city’s salvation lies with attracting tax-paying residents and businesses.

Bill Rustem, Snyder’s strategy director, said a beautified Belle Isle would help transform Detroit’s riverfront to a thriving gathering place.

“It’s about creating a quality place that can attract the young people we need to move to the city,” Rustem said. “It’s all about place.”

People’s Park

But some say an entry fee would shut out low-income Detroiters who’ve always had free access to the island nestled between their city and Canada.

“Everything’s being taken away from Detroit,” said Anita Parker, 48, who sat with friends at a picnic table on Belle Isle. “Are they going to charge to come in here? I think no. I think it should be a free park.”

An agreement approved by the city in April meant to avert a takeover of municipal finances or bankruptcy called for a long-term lease of Belle Isle to the state. A state proposal for a 99-year lease prompted a protest march last month led by three members of the City Council, which must approve a plan.

Bargain Struck

Today, Snyder and Mayor Dave Bing said they have agreed on a no-rent, 30-year deal beginning Oct. 1. Bing said that would save Detroit $275 million over 30 years and could be renewed for two more 30-year terms. Snyder said the state would issue bonds to pay for some restorations.

Admission would be a $10 annual parks sticker Michigan motorists can buy when they renew their license plates. It allows unlimited use, although entry would be free by foot, bicycle or public transportation.

“This isn’t Detroit versus Michigan,” Snyder said at a press conference at City Hall with Bing. “This is Detroit, Michigan.”

Belle Isle Park was designed in 1883 by Frederick Law Olmsted, co-creator of New York’s Central Park, and is reachable only by a half-mile bridge from the city or by boat. About 2 million vehicles are expected to make the drive this year, according to Brad Dick, director of the city’s general services department.

The park, though, shows the effects of a 76 percent cut in the maintenance budget over six years, Dick said. Belle Isle is Detroit’s second-largest park, and maintenance and utilities cost the city about $5.5 million a year, he said.

By comparison, New York’s Central Park is 843 acres and has a $45.8 million budget for maintenance and restoration -- 85 percent from the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy and 15 percent from the city.

Unmown Grass

Some U.S. cities have deferred more than $1 billion apiece in maintenance due to budget cuts since 2008, according to a report led by the National Association of Parks and Recreation and the Urban Institute.

Parts of Belle Isle are overgrown, buildings are falling into disrepair and an 87-year-old white marble fountain spouts water only occasionally because the city can’t staff it daily.

Detroiter Leonard Rutledge, 67, said the state would do better. He said a $10 annual fee isn’t too much to ask, even for poor families.

“Give up cigarettes, a pack of cigarettes, whatever it costs to come out,” said Rutledge in an interview at the park’s greenhouse and botanical garden.

Riverside Retreat

It’s rare for a state to assume control of municipal parks, said Phil McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Delaware in 1998 took responsibility for three along Brandywine Creek in Wilmington, the state’s largest city. They had been maintained by New Castle County until financial straits prompted the state to take over with a $2 million-a-year subsidy, said Charles Salkin, director of the state parks and recreation division.

Salkin said the conversion allowed more staff, and improvements to grounds and facilities. No entry fees are charged, Salkin said.

Belle Isle is still a popular getaway with a beach, fishing piers, a nine-hole golf course, auto racing and 1,000 annual events such as weddings and reunions, Dick said.

Aquariums of Detroit

The privately funded Belle Isle Conservancy spent $1.8 million to restore a picnic area and to replace the roof on a former horse stable used by maintenance crews, said Sarah Earley, the group’s chairwoman. The conservancy raised money to reopen the aquarium, billed as the oldest continuing aquarium in North America until budget cuts closed it in 2005. It’s now open Saturdays.

Earley, 62, said the Michigan Natural Resources Department is better equipped to improve the park. She said a 2010 survey by the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces showed most Belle Isle visitors favored an entry fee.

“There’s a lot that can’t be done because there’s no money in the city,” Earley said.

State control would free 36 city employees to tend other of the city’s 208 parks, Dick said.

A gleaming Belle Isle would spur development near the Detroit River, said John Mogk, a Wayne State University professor who specializes in urban law and policy.

Mogk said some Detroiters fear that upgrading Belle Isle to appeal to wealthier visitors would come at the expense of people who enjoy the island’s fishing, swimming and picnic areas.

“A lot of residents feel if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Mogk said. “Everybody has to win at this for everyone to get on board.”

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