Mammoth Belle Isle Park poses huge challenge for citizen-saviors (with video)

Michele Hodges, 45, became the first full-time president of the Belle Isle Conservancy in January 2013. A Grosse Pointe Park resident, she will guide the year-old organization, with a budget of approximately $1.3 million, as it seeks to improve Detroit’s singular, but neglected, park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in the late 19th century.

Earlier this year, the Detroit City Council rebuffed an offer from the state to have the Department of Natural Resources take over management of the park via a long-term lease, a move the conservancy supported. Hodges remains optimistic about Belle Isle’s future nonetheless.

Bridge: What’s the brief history of the Belle Isle conservancy?

A: It’s the culmination of (the work of) some very wise individuals – Friends of Belle Isle, the Belle Isle Women’s Committee, Friends of the Aquarium and the Belle Isle Botanical Society –  who realized that by working together, they could leverage their assets more readily and get closer to the goal of creating a sustainable and beautiful Belle Isle for everyone, forever. This was part of the Frederick Law Olmstead vision, as well. He didn’t want parks for the wealthy; he wanted public spaces you could go to no matter who you were.

Bridge: This is a pattern now in Detroit, with many of these assets being managed by non-profits.

A: It’s important to be open to options and find the model that is going to work best for the city of Detroit. Certainly, one of the models is the Central Park Conservancy (in New York). When they started out in the 1980s, Central Park was in far worse condition than Belle Isle. And they found one project, their Dairy Barn, which was their starting point, and look where they’ve come since then.

Bridge: What is the conservancy’s relationship with the city?

A: Our relationship is very good. From a structural standpoint, the two departments that have oversight on the island are the general services department and the recreation department, and their heads both have seats on our board, along with the park manager.

We’re a harnesser of resources. We were approached recently by the World Cup of Gardening. They’re looking for a venue, and we would really like to see Belle Isle to be it. It would be potentially be a real opportunity for the city. The Detroit Institute of Arts Inside | Out program will be on the island this summer. We facilitated that.

Bridge: Did the conservancy have a position on the state taking over stewardship of the island?

A: A resolution was passed by the board supporting the DNR leasing the park. That said, we will work with whatever party is at the table, and we have a long history of working well with the city of Detroit. So either outcome was manageable for us.

Bridge: So you were kind of like Switzerland.

A: Yes, those are the exact words our board chair used. We’re Switzerland.  But there’s a sincere interest in wanting to work for what’s best for the park. We see the city as bringing a lot to the table. But we need support to get to the next level. And that’s what the DNR would have done.

Bridge: So what’s the long-term plan? Is your first priority fundraising?

A: It’s capacity-building, harnessing the resources at our disposal. We need to do this over the next three years. We’re developing and building relationships with the private sector, and with the foundation community. We have assessments to do, in each of the major “buckets” on the island – environmental stewardship, really understanding Frederick Law Olmstead’s vision, making sure invasive species don’t take over the island. Then historic preservation -- the Scott Fountain, the Boat Club, the aquarium, the conservatory, the casino.

Bridge: To really transform the island, how much money would that take?

A: The 2005 master plan was a $250 million vision. We have some considerable momentum. We’re feeling that city-wide.

Bridge: Can you just elaborate a little on that? What's the $250 million for? Is it for total restoration of the island to its former glory, or were there new projects called for in the master plan?

A: The goals of the master planning process included the strengthening of assets and amenities that define the island’s character and uniqueness; to enhance the range and quality of public experiences; to explore the appropriate revenue generating opportunities; to create more efficient management and operations practices; and to establish consensus for future direction of the island.  And, yes, the end result would be a comprehensive renovation plan that ensures the park remains a premier gathering place for all, forever.

Bridge: What will the public see first as you really start to work on the park?

A: We’re working with the Project for Public Spaces, which is the same consulting firm Dan Gilbert is working with in Rock Ventures on all the work there. It’s Kresge Foundation-funded. Their branded product is called Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper. The goal is to create impact quickly and cheaply. We’re focused on three areas -- the beach, Sunset Point and the aquarium/conservatory. They’ll be making recommendations for lighter-quicker-cheaper things that can be done in those areas this summer.

So visitors might potentially see a new bike path. Signage is keenly missing. Activities and programming. There might be kayaking, picnicking, yoga, a kite-flying event, a barbecue cook-off.  Something to get buy-in from visitors.

On the less light, less quick, more expensive side, we already know there’s a $20 to $30 million price tag to get the Scott Fountain back to operating.. Those are the bigger challenges.

Bridge: What is the timeline for you to say, success? In 10 years, what will people see?

A: It will be huge. The momentum is there, the pieces are being put in place. Will it be easy? No, but who wants an easy job?

MORE COVERAGE: A photographic tour of Belle Isle.

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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Thu, 05/09/2013 - 7:19pm
Olmstead was a very influential landscape designer, having also designed the grounds for the Worlds Fair in Chicago in 1893. His work there and in Central Park was spectacular- I would love to see Belle Isle restored to Olmstead's vision.
Thu, 05/09/2013 - 7:21pm
Of course it would help if I could spell his name properly.
Tue, 05/14/2013 - 7:52pm
Roger Penske has done more damage to Belle Isle than any one in the last 100 years. The fountain and the entire west end of the island are restricted areas from March 15 until July 30 due to the stupid car race. He paved 10 acres of green space and then gave Kwame $60,000 as a thank you gift.
Fri, 05/17/2013 - 9:56am
I will feel better that the conservancy has the island's best interests in hand when the giant concrete paddock next to the Scott Fountain is jackhammered up and returned to green space. Selling out to corporate interests won't improve the island.
Mon, 05/20/2013 - 4:51pm
Right on Jeff! We must get together and organize a boycott of the grand prix and all events at this ten acre concrete desecration of Belle Isle by Roger Penske created for his own personal persuit of perverted pleasure.