The ‘New’ Belle Isle?

As the state eases into its transition game, some improvements are already underway — including more law enforcement
Images courtesy of the Library of Congress

Of all of the topics surrounding Detroit’s financial plight, it’s entirely plausible to say that the future of Belle Isle is the one that stirred the most passionate debate.

Belle Isle has long been a playground for metro Detroiters. Some are attracted to the natural beauty of the eastern end with its fishing piers, wooded areas, and gorgeous views of the water. Others like the western end, with its picnic shelters, athletic facilities, and Detroit skyline vistas.

It is home to almost everything. Joggers, walkers, and bicyclists are drawn to it. Belle Isle also hosts auto and boat races, concerts, huge family reunions complete with bounce houses and DJs, softball games, and even weekend cricket matches. It is also a place for cruising. Many a person has met someone special on a summer evening during a slow drive through the park.

Clearly, Belle Isle holds a special place for millions of people. That said, nobody believes the park isn’t in need of some major improvements.

The city has been unable to adequately maintain the park. Many bathrooms don’t work. Attractions like the Scott Fountain didn’t work. The aquarium is open only one day per week, after being closed for several years. The zoo was closed, now covered in graffiti. Picnic shelters need restoration.

Those are just the obvious problems. But many of the problems Belle Isle Park is facing are not so visible. Breakwalls that protect the island from erosion need repairs. Invasive plants threaten native species. Old and diseased trees need to be trimmed or cut down — and roads and bridges need rebuilding.

The city clearly needs help to restore Belle Isle to its former glory. But with the state of Michigan now in control, which vision of Belle Isle will win out? Will the park remain the urban playground it has become, or does it become more like a traditional state park with a focus on nature and tranquility?

The answer, for now, seems to be “yes.” For at least the first year of control, the state is taking a careful approach to how it handles that debate. Meetings between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and park users are scheduled to get direct feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. The meetings will also keep users in the loop about which renovation projects are coming up.

But perhaps the most important purpose is to reassure those who are worried that state control will mean less access for city residents. By far the most controversial part of this has been the implementation of an entry fee. Visitors must pay an $11 annual fee to enter what is now a state park.

Even that part is being taken slowly. Visitors won’t need the state pass until it is time to renew one’s license plate. After that, if one doesn’t have the pass, the state says it will gently remind visitors of the importance of getting one in advance of next year, when it will likely enforce the policy more strictly. Keep in mind, if you don’t have a vehicle pass, you can always walk or bike onto the island for free.

Once you’re in the park, what will be different? According to Scott Pratt, DNR chief of southern field operations, a lot — although it might not be immediately visible. The DNR was able to start dealing with tree removal during winter. It has cut down hundreds of dying or diseased trees since January.

Another focus has been on the restrooms, many of which have been closed for years. Pratt says he and his fellow park rangers utilized their plumbing skills this past winter, fixing pipes and replacing broken sinks and toilets. They hope to have all of the bathrooms working before the crowds arrive this summer.

One major improvement is obvious: The park is cleaner, and money will be spent to keep it that way. Other improvements, like fixing picnic shelters and buildings, are on the horizon. Planning is underway to determine which projects to tackle first. A new online system to reserve those picnic tables makes it more convenient to use them (visitors no longer have to make reservations in person at the Casino).

One more thing that will be noticeably different: State conservation officers will patrol the park, and they have already sent a message: Don’t speed, don’t park illegally, keep your dogs leashed, and keep the music at a tolerable level. They have full police powers and have already been making stops.

This will likely mean changes for those who like to cruise around Belle Isle on summer evenings. We’ll see how tolerant the officers are with the summer evening slow roll that takes place almost every night.

There will likely be a small period of adjustment as people get used to new management. But it seems that the state is easing into the transition in hopes of easing the concerns of residents and visitors alike.

So what will the “new” Belle Isle be? This year of transition will give us some pretty good clues.