Time to re-think Belle Isle

The Belle Isle Casino

The Belle Isle Casino

While local leaders debate the pros and cons of treating Detroit roughly the way the Vandals treated ancient Rome, this might be a good time to consider what Detroit needs to keep. Along those lines, it’s time to have a serious discussion about Belle Isle.

Certain things, including good parks, are essential to making a city work. Without them, the urban environment can be stifling and inhospitable. With them, cities are more inviting, connected, stable and attractive to investors. For that reason, I would like to see Belle Isle put on a “Do Not Sell” list. But we should do that as part of a workable, comprehensive plan to revitalize the 983-acre island.

Putting together such a plan will not be simple. The state’s attempt to lease the island showed just how difficult it can be to talk about Belle Isle’s future. Emotionally and politically, the topic is a powder keg. A lack of trust between Lansing and Detroit officials makes it even more so. But it’s time to get over ourselves.

If it’s allowed to deteriorate due to lack of resources, Belle Isle could be an albatross. If well-maintained and properly utilized, it could enhance the quality of life in the entire region. It could provide benefits that would go far beyond the potential sale price of the property. We ought to take a long look at that unrealized potential before we consider ideas like the crazy Commonwealth of Belle Isle proposal, or other schemes to privatize the island.

How do we get from where we are now to where we need to be? Reviving the lease idea would be one way to go. As a state park, Belle Isle would be able to tap into resources the city cannot dream of providing. However, that’s not the only option.

In New York, that city’s famed Central Park was saved from its decline through a public-private partnership that could serve as a model for Belle Isle’s revival.

The nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, formed in 1980, has raised more than $470 million from private sources to improve and maintain the park. In 1998, the conservancy took over management of the park. It now employs 90 percent of Central Park’s maintenance operations staff and provides 85 percent of the park’s $45.8 million annual budget through fundraising and investment revenue.

Central Park is better off than it has been in decades. Late Last year, hedge fund manager John A. Paulson added to that success by making a $100 million gift to the Central Park Conservancy.

Could the City of Detroit and the Belle Isle Conservancy pull off a similar miracle? They could. But, first, the city would have to decide that controlling the island is less important than reviving it. After that, the private sector – including foundations, corporations and wealthy benefactors – would have to dig deep and provide most of the money and expertise required.

Imagine a Belle Isle that is well-manicured, safe and full of amenities. Imagine a place that could be a tourist destination and a shining symbol of Detroit’s revival. We could, over time, have just that. So, let’s make it happen.


James Melton
James Melton is a Detroit journalist. At WWJ News Radio 950 AM, he was an editor and writer for variety of e-publications. He was assistant managing editor for Crain’s Detroit Business. He also is a published author, public relations consultant, and a long-time Detroit resident. In his spare time, Melton “tweets” about good things happening in Michigan.