The Detroit Boat Club has seen better days. But those days may be returning. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
A Hong Kong investor is offering a rescue plan for the Detroit Boat Club, one of Belle Isle’s most historic and most dilapidated buildings.
The boat house, built in 1902, has been steadily sliding into the Detroit River, its docks twisted and sinking and its walls and roof deteriorating.
With its red tile roof and location near the foot of the Belle Isle bridge, the boat club is one of the most distinctive buildings on the island park.
That location is what caught the eye of Jimmy Lai, owner of the Vintage Hotel group, which operates seven hotels near Toronto and Niagra-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and Next Media, the largest media company in Hong Kong.
“You don’t hear this said often, but Detroit is really a pretty city,” says Mark Simon, Lai’s representative. “The riverfront is spectacular.”
The vision, Simon says, is to rebuild the boat club to its original appearance as a 100- to 120-room boutique hotel.
The docks would also be restored. The building is home to the Detroit Boat Club, the oldest operating rowing group in the country, with roots dating to 1839, and the rowers would be allowed to stay, Simon promises.
The building would also include several restaurants to cater both to boaters and day visitors to the city-owned island, which was recently leased by the state of Michigan and is being converted to a state park.
“We think it could become a premiere destination for weddings,” Simon says. “The setting on the riverfront is so unique.”
In all, Simon says, it’s a $40 million project.
To make it happen, Vintage would have to negotiate with the city for a long-term lease. Investors want a 70-year agreement, twice as long as the state’s lease on the island.
Talks with city and state officials are in early stages. Simon is scheduled to be in Detroit this week, and will meet with George Jackson, head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, among others.
Jackson says the city is preparing a request for proposals seeking development ideas for the boat club, which he says will require a considerable investment to rehabilitate.
“It makes sense to get private dollars for a project of this magnitude,” he says.
And it would be true to Belle Isle’s history.
In the park’s glory years, it featured a mixture of public and privately run attractions.
“Belle Isle is open for investment, as long as it doesn’t destroy the natural character of the island,” Jackson says.
Lai has been quietly buying property in Detroit over the last couple of years, Simon says.
The investor purchased seven acres of vacant land on the east riverfront, 160 lots in the Jefferson/Chalmers neighborhood, property in Corktown and 15 acres in northwest Detroit.
“We want to establish that we’re serious about Detroit,” says Simon, adding that the company is bullish on the riverfront’s residential potential.
It’s encouraging that a major, outside investor can look at the city and see more than blight.
“Its natural beauty is why we’re interested in Detroit,” Simon says.
Despite the decay, Belle Isle is indeed beautiful.
Combining state dollars with private investments is the best option for bringing that beauty to life.
Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nolanfinleydn, and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.