July 8, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Conservancy wants Detroiters to feel welcome on Belle Isle

Detroit — The Belle Isle Conservancy is vowing to quickly create a grass-roots group to engage Detroiters and ensure they feel welcome on the state-run island.

Conservancy President Michele Hodges made the pledge during a Tuesday presentation to Detroit’s City Council as she outlined improvements on the 982-acre island and visitor uncertainty over its new rules and regulations.

“There’s nothing more important than for Belle Isle to be open and available to all,” Hodges said. “We’re very committed to making sure that the community knows that.”

Hodges noted the “sense of urgency” to form a community engagement committee of stakeholders, clergy and neighborhoods to provide a ground-level voice on the issues facing the community.

“It’s so important for the community to know that this is Detroiters’ park. They must come, they must enjoy it with us,” she said.

Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins said Tuesday that she supports the conservancy’s effort, noting that the island was empty on a recent visit.

“The level of traffic was disappointing,” Jenkins told Hodges. “I’m glad to hear that you are ... trying to figure out ways to get people back on the island, so residents will feel and understand we are still welcome there. This is still our park, it’s just state managed.”

Since it opened as a state park in February, some City Council members and Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey have voiced concerns over the treatment of Detroiters on the island.

Last month, Winfrey asked the State Police to ramp up efforts to make residents feel comfortable after she and others claimed they were unfairly subjected to traffic stops. Mayor Mike Duggan also has been pulled over by police on the island.

President Brenda Jones is among the council members who have called for sensitivity training of the law enforcement officials conducting patrols on Belle Isle.

Michigan State Police have said troopers are committed to Detroit and that any complaints are taken seriously.

Ron Olson, the state Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Recreation Division chief, said it’s unclear if visits to the island are up or down, since the department does not track how many cars enter. The state has plans to obtain equipment to do so, he added.

Olson did say about 8.5 percent of registered vehicle owners with Detroit zip codes had passports about a year ago. Now, about 34 percent have them.

“It’s the biggest increase of any area in the whole state,” he said. “It’s obviously associated with Belle Isle.”

Hodges on Tuesday noted that there’s been confusion over the policy involving the new recreation passport and island speed limit, which is now a uniform 25 miles per hour, she said.

Others, she said, are concerned that people may not be treated today as they had been in the past.

“We can’t accept the fact that anybody would not feel welcome on the island,” she said. “There’s no question that this conservancy is an ardent advocate for the park user and will not tolerate anything like that.”

CFerretti@detroitnews.com