City, state leaders celebrate Wilson Foundation endowment for riverfront park, trails

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Mayor Mike Duggan talks about the $100 million donation from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, including the development of 22 acres at West Riverfront Park, during a ceremony in Detroit Wednesday.  A backdrop features a portrait of Wilson.  At left is the foundation's president, David Egner.  

 Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Detroit — The $100 millionendowment from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr.Foundation that is expected to bring new life along the west riverfront was heralded Wednesday as an investment that will have an impact for generations.

Executives, city and state leaders, board and community members gathered to celebrate the gift that in part will fund a west riverfront park commissioned by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, a centerpiece of the neighborhood along Jefferson Avenue. 

 "There are moments in the life of a city that define the way people will interact for generations to come," said Mark Wallace, conservancy president and CEO, during the formal announcement along the riverfront. "This grant ... is a profound gift to our community, and it goes beyond generosity. It's truly an investment in change and has clear and very predictable outcomes." 

The Detroit effort will also go toward a southeast Michigan trail system and be replicated at LaSalle Park in Buffalo, where Wilson, a Grosse Pointe Shores native, became the founding owner of its NFL franchise that began league play in 1960.

Altogether, the foundation will invest $200 million in parks and trail initiatives totaling 250 miles, and each will be named “Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park."

Under the grant, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy will get $40 million toward redeveloping the 22-acre park site that intersects at the city's Mexicantown, Corktown and its southwest Detroit neighborhoods. Another $10 million will be granted to the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan to fund the park's sustainability.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan noted philanthropic contributions to the city over time but said Wednesday that "even in historic terms" the Wilson foundation endowment stands out.

"You are providing recreation opportunities to people in neighborhoods across areas that think they've been forgotten," said Duggan, highlighting in the city's heavily industrial southwest side, there's been a lack of riverfront that's "always been a source of pain." 

"What is happening now with what we are doing ... we're saying to the people of southwest Detroit: walk down, bike down, the riverfront is for you, too. When it opens, this is going to be the destination for recreation in the city of Detroit."

"There are moments in the life of a city that define the way people will interact for generations to come," said Mark Wallace, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy president and CEO. "This grant ... is a profound gift to our community."

Completion of the west riverfront park is part of an overall vision to develop 5.5 miles of riverfront from the Ambassador Bridge on the west to Gabriel Richard Park, east of the MacArthur Bridge.

Wallace said Wednesday that the gift will allow the conservancy to begin construction designs and work on securing the additional funding for the project that's expected to be about $60 million. A projected completion date is 2022.

"I never thought that the foundation would be building an island," said David Egner, CEO of the Wilson foundation, to laughs. "We are indeed helping to build an island with the riverfront conservancy."

In addition, $40 million will be earmarked for building regional trails connecting the 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. 

Gov. Rick Snyder also joined in the Wednesday announcement, noting economic development and quality of life are the two main necessities that make for a great city and state. The park and trails, he said, will be a catalyst for that.

"When you talk about meaningful giving, this is something that we didn't imagine," he said. "We had a dream. But this is allowing us to make that dream bigger."

Wilson's widow, Mary Wilson, increased what had been a planned $50 million commitment to $100 million for each of the cities. Her husband, she said, had a passion for Detroit and its people.

"Ralph was so into exercise, being healthy and going outdoors and bringing people together," she said. "This to me, it's going to be so Ralph. He would be so proud."

Former Mayor Dave Bing, who often has pointed out a disparity between development in the city's core in comparison to its neighborhoods, said he never thought he'd see funding like this come through for a riverfront project in the city. 

Egner, he added, is a "community-based guy" and with the gift is "putting his money where his mouth is." Bing said he believes the residents will take note. 

"A lot of people have been complaining that there's not enough happening in the community," he said. "This is something that's not downtown."

Resident Denise Kennedy was among the residents who provided input into the design for the riverfront park.

Kennedy, a breast cancer survivor, said she endured treatment while the city was in the midst of its historic bankruptcy and handing over control of its Belle Isle park to the state. It was then she decided to get involved.

"I remember scribbling down real quick 'I want to be in on the change,'" she said. "I can't even believe I'm standing here, looking at this."