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The Rebirth Of Belle Isle

The Rebirth Of Belle Isle image The Rebirth Of Belle Isle image
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While city administrators struggie with Detroit's growing fiscal crisis downtown, construction workers are continuing the remodeling of what was once Detroit's prïze possession some three miles away. Belle Isle, the nation's only island park, is currently undergoinga $10 million facelift-a project accountable to'both Mayor Coleman Young's personal fondness for the sland and his administration's desire to rebuild downtown Detroit. León Atchison, the City's Parks and Recreation Director, remembers how the island looked when Young's team took office 27 months ago: "When we came in, we found a very lovely park that had been allowed to deteriórate to the point where people had stopped using it," recalls Atchison. "It had developed a reputation of beinga place not to be, rather than a place to be." Broken picnic benches, uncontrolled litter, and weathered buildingsnot to mention a polluted river- did not exactly sit well with Detroiters who were already looking to the suburbs for employment, housing and recreation. Mayor Young, who spent a great deal of his childhood on the sland, knew that Belle Isle was once one of Detroit's major attractions-for residents and tourists alike. Young was also aware that Detroit's necessary convention business needed a boost, and that "matching" state and federal funds are more accessible for an island park like Belle Isle than for neighborhood parks like Palmer, Chandler, and Rouge. Taking this into consideration, it is obvious why Young was so confident of the Belle Isle project's ultímate success that he used t as a campaign promise n 1973. And once he was elected, Young convinced Common Council to support the project when some $2.6 million in state funds and $600,000 in federal funds were added to the $6.5 million of city monies needed for the renovation. Additionally, the Junior Leagues of Birmingham and Detroit and the Friends of Belle Isle hoped to raiseanother $300,000. BRINGING THE PEOPLE BACK The flrst concern of the project's planners was to take care of the sland's lack of proper maintenance. "We've increased the maintenance staff by one-third," says Atchison, who guarantees that the 1000-acre park will be sparkling clean by noon Monday, no matter how heavy the usage on a given Sunday. Curbing the maintenance problem also began bringing people back to the island continued on page 26 The Rebirth of Belle Isle continaed from page 3 from the distant suburbs. "We're f getting a much different racial mix W now," says Atchison, who figures atƒ tendance on the island is now some 50 m pci cent white, compared to a nearly allaf black ratio when the neglected sland ■ could attract only those within a few I miles of the park. Others, in the past, began using neighborhood parks, while those with transportation flocked away from the city to the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority's several regional parks. "Neither the Gribbs administration nor the previous Cavanaugh team would allocate the necessary funds to keep Belle Isle prosperous. Detroit Council President Cari Levin says it was a case of priorities. "The last two administrations also worked under deficit budgets," assessed the sixyear Council veteran. " It 's had to take from Peter to pay Paul." In other words, Detroit was in a financial mess. Downtown Detroit began losing business to the ever-expanding suburbs, political power began to shift outside the city, and funds for vital city let alone recreation centers like Belle Isle -began to dry up. THE BIG PICTURE However, the suburbs could not take from Detroit itsbeautiful waterfront, Belle Isle's topography, or the convention business which is potentially the city's savior. Sure, Troy, Southfield, and Dearborn can offer luxurious hotels and shopping centers, but none has a convention structure like Cobo Hall. The Detroit Convention Bureau currently ranks the city seventh in the nation, "and we're not that far away from fourth," says Atchison, who sees the restoration of Belle Isle as a definite help in the effort to attract conventioneers. With Renaissance Center's completion not far away, a strong effort is now being made to make downtown Detroit's Central Business District a prosperous residential and business community as well-to further compete with such suburban centers as Dearborn's Fairlane and Southfield'sNorthland. Additional high-income housing s being planned for an area just west of Cobo Hall, and a bieyele trail along the riverfront, stretching from the Ambassador Bridge to Water Works Park at the Belle Isle entrance, is on the drawing boards. In addition to the housing west of Cobo Hall, a possibility still exists for the construction of a major league baseball stadium-something desperately needed, since the Lions moved to Pontiac and Tiger Stadium doesn't have much of a future. To complete the waterfront's landscape, Civic Center Plaza, a 1 O-acre park between the Veterans Building and Ford urn, is undcr construction. BRINGING BACK THE FISH Realizing the importance of Belle Isle to this civic rejuvenation effort, the Young administration lus embarked on several ambitious programs there. The athletic complex, where many of Qetroit's amateur softball teams play their games, s a $1 million project by itself, and the state s generously picking up 80 per cent of the bill there. A new Nature Interpretive "Center is beng constructed at the east end of the island, along with trails through Belle Isle's almost undisturbed forests. Again, Michigan is spending $1 million in that project, while the state is also matching city funds for the construction of two fishing piers on the south end of the island. A massive fish planting program around the island has already been completed, something which would not have been done f the river had not been allowed to clean itself up over the last few years. The federal government, on the other hand, is picking up the tab on $80,000 worth of bicycle trails, half of the final fishing pier on the island's north side, handball courts in the athletic complex, and an and roller-skating rink. "ILEDECOCHONS" When everything is completed, the island will hardly resemble "wah-na-basee" (The White. Swan), which it was called by the native Indians n the 1700s. The first white villagers of the sland-it was presented to Detroiters by none other than the city's founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac- confined hogs and cattle upon the island as a safety precaution against the dangers of wild beasts and Indians. "No doubt," reads a city brochure, "the island received its French name, I Ie de Cochons (Island of the Hogs), from the animáis placed upon t." In 1760, the island came into the possession of the British. It was sold to Lieut. George McDougall in 1768 by the Indians for eight barrels of rum, three rolls of tobacco, six pounds of red paint, and a belt of wampum. After passing through a number of hands, during which it was renamed "Belle Isle" after Miss Isabelle Cass (daughter of Governor Cass) in 1845, t was eventually sold to the city of Detroit in 1879 for $200,000. Shortly thercafter, international ly famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead designed a plan for the island as a park in 1 883. Many of his original plans still exist today, such as Central Avenue, the canals, and the undisturbed forest where the Nature Interpretive Center s being built. THE TIVOLI CONCEPT City funds are paying for a completely new road system, as well as all new lights for the island, including the fishing piers. "We want someone to get off of work at midnight, drive over to the sland, and cast his fishing rod n comfort," says Atchison, who certainly has the customer in mind. The tourist and conventioneer has also been accounted for. More than $900,000 is being spent on the children's zoo, which will eventually feature a "walk-through safari," a porpoise show like California's Marineland, and expanded elephant and horse rides. Nearly $350,000 is being spent on the Casino's exterior renovation, while another $92,000 is being spent on Scott Fountain, originally built in 1936. Already found on the island, of course, are the often-visited aquarium, floral conservatory, orchestra shell, and golf course and driving range. The sland's only pnvatê I enterprises are the Detroit Boat I and Yacht Clubs, which are both W I located on the nortfiern sitie. The k E clubs do not bring any revenue directly I to the city, since they both pay but $1 I per year to lease the property. Each club 1 I was also able to secure 99-year leases, and 1 I neither will expire until the neighborhood I of 2025. With such a large burden on the taxpayI er, the city is hoping to add some revenue I to the island in the future. An immediate I concern is the opening of a first-class resI taurant in the casino. Conventioneers and I tourists would benefit most if a good meal I could be had without leaving the island. The city is currently negotiating with ' several local establishments, but as yet, no final decisión has been made. The restaurant would be the first step toward the creation of a "Tivoli" concept around the Casino. Tivoli is a highly concenlrated area of restaurants, entertainment, and gambling located in Copenhagen, Denmark. The city would like to implement this concept on a much smaller scale than the original. Gambling, however, is still Ilegal in Michigan. "One thing about doing a Tivoli concept on the island," says Atchison, "is that t may genérate more of a crowd than we want. We have to play this thing very caref ui ly if we decide to go that way." The Tivoli concept is one of many ideas contained in a master plan for the island, being prepared by the design firm of Kiley, Tyndall and Walker. The master plan, which was expected to be presented to the city by December, now wiH not be forthcoming until midApril. Besides the Tivoli. concept, the major feature of the plan would be the banning of the automobile. A ferry service would then be initiated from downtown to the island, and Belle Isle would soon resemble northern Michigan's Mackinac Island. Any part of the plan, when finally submitted, would need Common Council's approval, both for theory and, eventually, funding. The banning of cars would not exactly mesh well with the current project, since all-new roads are today n the process of installation. The city is trying to reestablish Belle Isle's romantic atmosphere by correcting the canoe course through the canal and improving the general appearance of the sland. Banning the automobile would be a direct contradiction to that premise, since t is commonly known that the sland provides some of the city's most romantic "parking" places. Joel Greer, who Uves in Detroit, has written about sports for the Michigan Daily and the Ann Arbor News.