An Hour with … Ryan Abney

Event manager, Belle Isle Boat House
Illustration by Larry Cooney Jr.

Through her work as proprietor of an eponymous event design firm, Ryan Abney developed an affinity for planning events for nonprofit organizations in metro Detroit. “I was hosting mainly corporate fundraising and social events,” says Abney, 40. “But my nonprofit clients made me feel like I was doing something for the greater good.” Tapped by Friends of Detroit Rowing, a nonprofit with a mission to keep the sport of rowing alive in the region she’s called home since high school, the Evanston, Ill. native has been tasked with generating funds for the restoration of one of Detroit’s longest standing historic establishments: The Belle Isle Boat House. Nearly eight months into a five-year renovation plan, Abney shares just how her expertise in event design will help restore the Boat House to its original grandeur.

Hour Detroit: How were you first introduced to the Belle Isle Boat House?

Ryan Abney: I was working for Ford Motor Company in Dearborn in the maintenance and planning department. The company was going through downsizing, so I took a separation package and launched Ryan Abney Event Design in 2012. Friends of Detroit Rowing, the nonprofit that is responsible for the Boat House, contacted me in mid-2016 to plan a fundraiser for the building, and in the planning of that event, we started talking about how venue rental could be their saving grace as far as raising the funding they need to restore the Boat House.

The Boat House was originally an exclusive facility. Why are you looking to change that?

It was very exclusive. In 1839, a rowing team and sailing club came together and formed the Detroit Boat Club — the Detroit Boat Club is the name of the sailing organization and social club, which still exists to this day, and the Detroit Boat Club Crew is the rowing team that is still in the building. The Boat House was exclusive not just in that you had to be a member, but when they were co-existing in the space, the rowers, for many years, weren’t allowed upstairs. With everything that’s currently going on in the nation, inclusivity is what we should be focusing on. How can we work together? Organizations that are forged in community collaborations, are the ones that are long lasting. The more we can renovate the space, the more of the community that we can bring in.

“The boathouse is seeking to sustain its future by honoring history while writing a new chapter of inclusion and diversity of form and function. I want to make the future here as rich as its history.”
— Ryan Abney

How has the community responded to the renovation plans?

The community has been extremely supportive. We’ve hosted a couple of events where people have said, “I drove by this building for years and have never been inside.” Now, they can go out and tell the story that it’s a place for everyone. The river-fed pools are probably the only elements that we’ve had a little bit of pushback on. Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan, trained in one of the pools. At the time, we didn’t have as many rules and regulations but nowadays, water that’s coming in from the Detroit River is not considered an acceptable water source for a pool. The plan that we’re looking at now is to drain them, fill them, and use them for greenspace. Other than that, we’re really doing our best to strike a balancing act between preserving and respecting the history of the Boat House, while being responsible for the people that are going to rent the space.

In February, you told the Detroit Free Press that Roy O’Brien Ford and Penske Corp. are among donors. Have other investors signed on since?

Meridian Health Plan has also been a donor, and events and rentals have skyrocketed. We are booked through 2018, there are some months in 2019 that are taken, and I just had an inquiry for 2020. We are also doing the second Belle Isle Family Fun Passport, Antique & Classic Boat Show the first Saturday of August. We have 22 slips on the east side of the lawn that we restored a few years ago, so antique and classic boats come in and use the wells, and we have some land displays and a picnic. Sometimes, we’ll even become the charity partner for events hosted on the property and a portion of the proceeds go towards the major donor renovation program.

Why is it so important to restore this Detroit landmark?

The boathouse distinguishes itself, in that we wish to renovate the space while maintaining its core historic purpose; a boathouse and community-use venue. Other [historic] Detroit buildings are being saved, but the core use or purpose isn’t maintained. The boathouse is seeking to sustain its future by honoring history while writing a new chapter of inclusion and diversity of form and function. I want to make the future here as rich as its history.

The Five-Year Plan

Together with Friends of Detroit Rowing and board members, Abney has developed a $5 million, five-year plan and major donor renovation program to restore the Belle Isle Boat House. “This shows people that we have a plan for the future. We want to be in Detroit for the long haul and we want to take part in the revitalization.” Here’s what the plan looks like.

Done and Done

Completed repairs:
Conference room and studio (available to rent)
Eastern docks
Lobby wood paneling
Restroom renovations
Various Women’s City Club repairs
Total cost: $500,000

Next Up

Repairs slated to be completed in 1 year:
Converting swimming pools to green space
Electrical and lighting
Parking lot pavement and gate
Roof and ceiling repairs
Security system
Estimated cost: $194,000

Down the Line

Repairs to be done in the next 2 to 5 years:
Bar shelving
Boiler repairs
Door maintenance and lock installations
Staircase replacement
Estimated cost: $4,806,000

For a comprehensive timeline for the Belle Isle Boat House repairs and more on the major donor renovation program, visit