Detroit's Belle Isle on the cusp of becoming Michigan's newest state park

Jan 31, 2014

The Scott Fountain on Belle Isle
The Scott Fountain on Belle Isle

As Detroit’s Belle Isle is about to become Michigan’s newest state park, the island’s state park advisory committee met for the first time Thursday.

That committee is meant to add a measure of transparency to the island’s new governing scheme, members said they would work to earn Detroiters' trust.

The state now has a long-term lease to run the park. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources officially takes over management on February 10th.

The committee heard discussion on some big long-term visions for Belle Isle—including an island “master plan,” and early proposals for private developments.

But state director of parks and recreation Ron Olson says no one should expect “huge dramatic changes” this year.

“We’re not going to start into developing new things, and get ahead of ourselves,” Olson says. “What we want to do is get the basic things back in order.”

Olson says that means fixing the bathrooms, trash cans and picnic tables, and ensuring public safety on the island.

“And then we’ll look towards re-purposing things, and trying to move in a positive direction,” Olson says, adding that the DNR wants to “keep tradition, but be forward-thinking” in its approach to Belle Isle.

Advisory Committee Chair and Belle Isle Conservancy President Michele Hodges says their first priority is preserving Belle Isle as a “public space” that honors its natural assets and historic infrastructure.

“And we need to do that with strategic economic development initiatives, that don’t compromise that public space, but at the same time allow us to sustain the island in a meaningful way,” says Hodges, who cited New York’s Central Park as a model for Belle Isle.

Belle Isle was designed in the late 19th century by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also planned Central Park.

The island was always meant to provide a natural sanctuary from urban life, and has served that purpose for generations of Detroiters. However, it’s fallen into disrepair in recent years as the city lacked money for maintenance and upgrades—something the state has promised to fix.

Even so, the transformation to a state park has been controversial. There will be an entrance fee for the first time, and some people worry that state police patrols and other changes will make the island less welcoming for many Detroiters.