Attendance, investment up at Belle Isle

Christine Ferretti, and Candice Williams

Detroit — Belle Isle, the top visited state park in Michigan, logged just more than 4 million visitors last year and has seen $32 million in investments since it came under state control in 2014.

The Department of Natural Resources and Belle Isle Conservancy on Tuesday provided the new figures as it detailed the island’s progress during an annual update before Detroit’s City Council.

Ron Olson, parks and recreation division chief for the DNR, said officials had hoped to sink $20 million into the island in the first three seasons.

“We’ve exceeded that,” he said. “It continues to grow.”

Within the total investment is $994,000 of volunteer hour contributions and $769,000 in private donations through collaboration with the conservancy, officials said.

Olson on Tuesday also touted continued increases in attendance at the island. Last year’s turnout was 14 percent higher than the 3.6 million visitors recorded in 2015. This year, Olson said, he expects visitors will exceed 4.2 million.

“This is the largest tourist destination in the state of Michigan,” he told council members, saying it’s also believed to be the most visited state park in the country. “It’s a very iconic place in that regard.”

Total park and recreation passport revenue was $1.07 million, while revenue for the Belle Isle generated through permits and other fees was $514,000. That’s up 14 percent from $451,000 in 2015, officials said.

The state assumed its lease of the island Feb. 10, 2014, under an agreement reached by Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit’s former emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.

In the last year, the island has received new LED street lighting, a kayak launch and a universally accessible playground, officials said. Repairs have included sidewalk and stormwater drainage improvements. Renovations are underway at the picnic shelters and pavilions.

Last summer, the Detroit Department of Transportation added a bus stop on Belle Isle. When the island first became a state park, about 5.9 percent of registered vehicles with Detroit ZIP codes had a recreation pass.

Today, it’s about 33 percent, which is in line with the state average, Olson told The Detroit News.

Amid the good news Tuesday was concern from some residents and council members over the annual preparation and tear down of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

The races are held on the island under an agreement through 2018, which the city reached prior to the state lease. This year, they begin on June 2.

“My concern is that I can’t access the part of the island I love for the best part of the year from April to the end of June,” resident Carol Rhoades said. “I would like to see the race go away. It just doesn’t belong on Belle Isle.”

Added resident Mary Ellen Howard: “We aren’t against the Grand Prix. We are against the Grand Prix on Belle Isle.”

Council member Mary Sheffield, who represents District 5, which includes Belle Isle, did not take a position Tuesday on whether the event should continue there, but agreed set up and tear down is “excessive,” and she doesn’t want it to limit resident access.

Olson said the state is working with the Grand Prix to reduce its footprint.

“Right now, what I can say is the process is ongoing, and it will continue,” Olson said of discussions over plans to hold future races on the island.

Bud Denker, who chairs the event, said the Grand Prix is allotted eight weeks to set up and three to take down. They have committed, he said, to reduce that to a six-week set up period next year. Last year, it was 10 weeks, he noted.

The three-day event accounts for $45 to $50 million in economic development each year and last year attracted 95,000 visitors, he said.

Michigan State Police Lt. Mike Shaw last week said there haven’t been any major incidents in the last few years during large gatherings on the island, which is patrolled 24 hours a day by state police and DNR conservation officers.

Shaw could not cite recent figures on traffic citations or arrests but said there are “no major crimes to speak of.”

“Our troopers don’t write a lot of tickets,” said Shaw, adding about 90 percent of drivers stopped on the island today receive verbal warnings over citations.

Council President Brenda Jones and Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey initially raised concern in summer 2014 that residents were being unfairly targeted by police on the island. Both had called for sensitivity training for state police and state conservation officers.

Winfrey and Mayor Mike Duggan both were stopped on the island in 2014 and received warnings for speeding. Shaw said the transition was a learning experience for everyone, and officials stopped all who didn’t abide by the 25 mph limit.

When the state assumed its lease of the island, Shaw said, it enforced regulations already in place.

“We let people know Belle Isle is a family place. The speed limit is the speed limit,” Shaw said. “I’m proud of the men and women of the Michigan State Police and Department of Natural Resources being able to go ahead and do what we said we would do from the beginning; make Belle Isle a nice place for people to come and visit and have picnics and watch the fireworks and do everything they are entitled to do.”

Work on a strategic plan for the island is ongoing and a series of public meetings are being held to gather feedback.

Dozens of visitors were on Belle Isle one recent afternoon, enjoying the spring weather. Among them was Ramon Wheeler, 28 and his son, Messiah, 5, who walked in a grassy area not far from the island’s fountain.

Wheeler, a lifelong Detroiter, said he was a bit biased when the state took over the park but acknowledges the city wasn’t doing the best job maintaining it.

“I didn’t really understand the takeover initially,” he said. “Somebody had to take care of it. I’m appreciative of it… I’m hopeful we can take it back over ourselves.”

John France, 23, of Harper Woods, sat in the grass by the water Monday afternoon playing his guitar.

France said the state takeover was noticeable to him when he returned to the area after college. France frequents the park during afternoons and on weekends to jog and read.

“The change is quite drastic,” he said. “A lot more people show up. It’s a lot more fun. There’s always something going on.”