Howes: Wilson foundation pledges $100 million to riverfront park, trails

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Detroit — The foundation endowed by former Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson is contributing $100 million to help build a planned park and trail network on the west riverfront, effectively connecting the Ambassador Bridge with the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle.

A $100 million series of grants from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, endowed by the former owner of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, will help develop the 22-acres West Riverfront park and trail network connecting to downtown and southwest Detroit.

The effort, which was announced Wednesday, will be replicated at LaSalle Park in Buffalo, where the longtime Grosse Pointe Shores industrialist became a civic fixture as the founding owner of its NFL franchise that began league play in 1960.

Altogether, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation will invest $200 million in parks and trail initiatives totaling 250 miles, and each will be named “Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park” to mark this, the 100th year of his birth. Born 100 years ago today, he died on March 25, 2014, and his trust sold the Bills six months later.

The foundation’s grants are a major boost to the redevelopment of Detroit's riverfront, long an industrial eyesore evoking the city's gritty past instead of a gleaming international showpiece facing Canada to the south. Not for much longer, courtesy of the low-key tycoon whose sprawling empire mostly escaped notice in his hometown.

That's because most of Wilson's business interests, all privately held, were headquartered outside Metro Detroit. In addition to his beloved Bills, his business interests included trucking and car hauling, maintenance, stamping and plastics, drilling and entertainment, financial services and a Denver-based company called Interstate Highway Construction — the only Wilson company yet to be fully liquidated by his trust.

“This is a great anchor for all of our work,” David Egner, CEO of the Wilson foundation, said of the parks initiatives in Detroit and Buffalo. “You’ll see more gifts … farther out as we understand things. I’m hopeful we’ll see more of these opportunities in both regions."

The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy will receive $40 million to redevelop the 22-acre West Riverfront Park, to open public access to the river and to drive economic development along the river, the Wilson foundation says. Another $10 million will be granted to the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan to fund the park's sustainability. 

Another $40 million will be earmarked for building regional trails connecting the 5.5-mile riverfront to the region, including the Iron Belle Trail operated by the state Department of Natural Resources. A biking and hiking track, it runs 2,000 miles from the western tip of the Upper Peninsula, crossing 48 counties and ending at Belle Isle. And $10 million will be overseen by the community foundation to ensure long-term viability of the trails.

"It's huge," said Mark Wallace, CEO of the RiverFront Conservancy. "This is a transformative ..., incredible investment in the future of the riverfront."

And in the city. Planners envision the riverfront project and associated connectors will tie all of southwest Detroit to downtown, speeding the kind of redevelopment that reduces blight, increases property values and gives residents a vested interest in the revival. A network of trails and connectors also should tie Ford Motor Co.'s redeveloped Michigan Central Depot in Corktown to the central city. 

With design development scheduled to start in January, the conservancy estimates the total cost of the park could range as high as $60 million and should be ready to open in 2022. Meantime, the conservancy plans to launch next year an estimated $175 million capital and endowment fundraising campaign to augment the lead gift from the Wilson foundation and to finance other projects associated with the riverfront.

Rejuvenating the riverfront is "tremendously important" to economic development, said Matthew Cullen, chair of the RiverFront Conservancy board and CEO of Dan Gilbert's Rock Ventures family of companies. "It's the way everybody comes together on the waterfront. It feels great. It feels inclusive. It's our strongest marketing tool. It gives people a feeling of our community that is different than they expect." 

The Wilson grants mark yet another high-visibility move by philanthropies tied to long-ago business leaders. Their wealth, in many cases generated in and around Detroit, is helping drive the reinvention of Detroit by seizing opportunities not too long ago thought impossible.

Ford and Kresge foundation money heavily financed the "grand bargain" that rescued Detroit Institute of Arts in the city's bankruptcy and bolstered imperiled city pensions. Wilson money — $500,000 of which was added to the "grand bargain" kitty but never before made public — aims to transform the riverfront for folks, regardless of income or social station, and to help attract economic development east and west of central downtown.

"This wasn't in any way, shape or form, 'Oh, what am I going to do with the money,'" said Jeff Littmann, chairman of the Wilson foundation, former CFO of the Bills and a longtime financial adviser to Wilson. "I knew him for 30 years; this was always the plan. He was very private."

Less so now that he's gone. His foundation, valued at $1.3 billion, already has given away $250 million in the areas of Metro Detroit and western New York, but rising equity markets and surging economic growth mean that nearly four years into its self-imposed 20-year lifespan, the Wilson foundation is worth more than when it opened its doors.

Kinda like Wilson, whose business interests increased in value even if the priorities of "Rental Ralph" didn't so much. Here was a mogul who flew commercial most of his working life, Littmann said. His holdings included an NFL franchise, but he furnished his rented condo in Williamsville, New York, with rent-to-own furniture and drove a rented Ford Taurus when he came to Buffalo for games — hence the nickname, courtesy of a California friend.

"It's been a good market," said Egner, acknowledging reality: the foundation's assets are earning more each year than he and his staff can give away. "I would call it an opportunity instead of a challenge. I've got trustees saying, 'Throw the ball!' That's what Ralph would say — do something."

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.