Detroiters divided over state management of Belle Isle five years later

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
Ed Natavio, right, of Lake Orion and his son, Ethan Natavio, 12, relax while Ed's brother, John Natavio of Detroit tends to the meat on the grill on Belle Isle in Detroit on Memorial Day 2019.

Detroit — Belle Isle, Michigan's most visited state park, is having an identity crisis.

As it settles into the fifth year under state management, investments are up to $55 million from 2014-18, and so is the annual attendance, which is just over 4.1 million, up 502,245 visitors from 2015. 

Some visitors have heralded it a safer, cleaner and more family-friendly park. But others claim it is now sterile, unwelcoming and frankly, not the same Belle Isle they once loved.

Scott Pratt, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, calls it a “work in progress with a lot of successes.”

“I truly believe the community welcomes us with open arms and appreciates us working hard for them, but they also want us to get to work and fix the issues that have plagued the island for some time, like the bathrooms, infrastructure and roads.”

As throngs of visitors prepare to descend upon the island for the Fourth of July celebration, those who manage and patrol it, simply want everyone to enjoy it.

“Our job is to make sure your experience is a good one,” said park manager Karis Floyd during a recent tour of the park.

Belle Isle became Michigan’s 102nd state park in February 2014. While it still is owned by the city of Detroit, it is operated by the State of Michigan Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation Division under a 30-year lease agreement reached by then Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit’s former emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.

The island cooled by the Detroit River on the city's east side is known for its aquarium, conservatory, barbecues, summer camps and places to exercise or relax. 

But traffic enforcement has been one of the main tension points in the half-decade under state oversight.

Traffic stops have declined in the last five years but verbal warnings remain constant.

The Detroit News reported in 2015 that state officers conducted 2,003 traffic stops, and of those, 1,814 were issued verbal warnings in 2014. There were 191 traffic citations given out, mostly for speeding. State police also made 25 felony arrests and 225 misdemeanor arrests. Four firearms were seized.

From left, family members Jawon Thompson, 21, his wife Jennifer Thompson, 21, both of Westland, Ronel Hall, 23, of Detroit, James Hall IV, Paris Tillman, 5, and James Tillman, 47, of Detroit relax on Belle Isle in Detroit on Memorial Day.

In 2018, statistics from Michigan State Police show there were 1,271 traffic stops made, with 1,286 verbal warnings. Add another 1,660 verbal warnings from the DNR Conservation Officers, for a total of 2,946 verbal warnings.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey’s love of the island was shattered shortly after the state management transition. She and Mayor Mike Duggan were among many citizens stopped by the Michigan State Police at that time, which precipitated a groundswell of criticism. Duggan’s office confirmed he was stopped, but he did not respond to questions.

Winfrey told The News that her introduction to the Michigan State Police on patrol occurred on April 18, 2014.

“My 80-year-old mom had not been to Belle Isle in a while so we decided to go,” she said. “So I’m driving with my mom next to me, and suddenly, we’re stopped by an officer.”

She continued, “Now keep in mind, I have never, in all my life, received a moving violation.”

Winfrey said the officer approached her car and asked for her license.

“He then said I was speeding and that I should know better after he saw my municipal plate,” she said. “I know I was not speeding with my mother sitting right next to me, but he insisted I was.”

The speed limit on the island is 25 miles per hour.

She added, “And he was unkind. He was quite rude and disrespectful.”

Winfrey, who has a state park pass that is required to enjoy the island, said although the officer took her license, he did not run it and returned it to her with a verbal warning.

Winfrey said she returned to the island last year for a family event, but she no longer regularly visits.

“It’s not the same,” she said. “It feels sterile. It makes me feel sad. The park is clean and maintained, but I don’t feel comfortable enough to enjoy it now.”

Michigan State Police spokesman Lt. Mike Shaw says if rules are broken, people will be stopped.

“We don’t care if you’re the mayor, because we expect people to abide by the rules,” said Shaw. “If you violated the law, we enforced it.”

He added, “The mayor was completely cooperative. We had no issue whatsoever.”

For emphasis, he continued, “I get a paycheck every two weeks from the citizens of the state of Michigan to do my job, regardless of who you are.”

Shaw said state police did not add any new laws to the park when they began patrolling.

That presence is the main reason the Rev. Charles Williams II refuses to drive on Belle Isle.

The pastor of Historic King Solomon Baptist Church said although he has not been stopped by police on the island, he will not take his family there for a picnic.

“I usually run downtown, but I’ll also run on Belle Isle about three times a month,” he said. “But I will not drive my car."

His reason?

“Belle Isle has been a part of my life, all my life, “ he began. “And although I may be considered a prominent minister in the city, as well as a chaplain with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, I do not want to be put in the position of being hassled,” he said.

He then referenced two incidents involving state police that contribute to his stance.

In April 2019, former Trooper Mark Bessner was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter nearly two years after he fired a Taser at Damon Grimes, 15, who was illegally riding an ATV in a residential Detroit neighborhood.

Williams says, “I shouldn’t be concerned? They killed a boy in Detroit.  I don’t have the right to be skeptical and the right not to want to deal with the state police?”

Williams also cited a September 2017 incident that prompted then-state police director Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue to apologize. Etue had shared on her Facebook page a post that labeled athletes who kneel during the national anthem as “a bunch of rich, entitled, arrogant, ungrateful, anti-American degenerates.”

But the park manager takes issue with Williams’ assessment.

“The State Police are out there really working well with the public, and we don’t have the issues we had in the beginning,” Floyd said. “Like any place, you drive the speed limit, which is 25 miles per hour as it is in all Michigan state parks.”

Everything seemed to go on without incident at the recent 61st annual Ford Fireworks on June 24.

Troopers tweeted: "We had zero incidents today thanks to the entire community who came out to have a good time!" 

They also tweeted, "Troops are catching their breath after all the hard work (ice cream eating, BBQ sharing and sticker handing out) at Belle Isle yesterday. Next up is the July 4th holiday! Time to think of parties, designated drivers and wearing your seat belt."

Martyn Demers, 1, is oblivious to the law enforcement controversy.

On a recent day, he scampers through the Belle Isle playscape with his toddler crew close behind.

They frolic near Lake Muskoday, while their moms observe and chat.

Laura Demers, 29, originally from Muskegon, has lived in Detroit for eight years and said the moms — all recent transplants — try to arrange playdates on the island as often as possible.

“It’s really changed for sure,” she said of the space located along the Strand. “They’ve definitely cleaned it up, and it’s nice to have outdoor spaces, especially for kids growing up in the city.”

The three millennial moms represent part of the new and improved, gussied-up and more family-friendly island.

And visitors like Demers are spending money. Events, permits, rentals and donations generated $977,725 in revenue in 2018. 

Kimberly Willis is among those visitors driving up attendance.

“I had stopped going to the island back in 2015 because it became like a party spot, and there was a lot of fighting,” said Willis, 45, of Inkster.

She was visiting the island will family members on Memorial Day.

“I just started coming back about two years ago because it’s cleaner, and you see a lot more families now.”