22-acre park on Detroit's west riverfront honors NFL exec Ralph Wilson

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — City leaders broke ground Tuesday on a 22-acre park located along Detroit's west riverfront in memory of a local entrepreneur and former owner of the NFL's Buffalo Bills.

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy introduced the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park marking a major step forward in completing 5½ miles of revitalized the once industrial riverfront, Mayor Mike Duggan said. The new park will take over West Riverfront Park at West Jefferson Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard.

Detroit Riverfront Conservancy members and community  business leaders participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park on Detroit's West Riverfront.

The Conservancy received $7 million in several gifts from philanthropists supporting the park which is expected to be completed in 2024.

That's on top of the $40 million capital investment and $10 million endowment committed to the park in 2018 by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. The foundation also provided additional capital support to ensure key connections to the park could be made between the East Riverfront and West Riverfront and beyond with the addition of the Southwest Greenway.

The $5 million four-acre playground will have a 20-foot bear play-structure that children can climb up and slide down, as well as otters and beavers.

The investment is expected to amount to $75 million for the community, Duggan said.

"This is going to be spectacular. The city of Detroit is a better place to live because of what's been done on this riverfront. I can't imagine a higher compliment to the donors," Duggan said.

Detroit's mayor Mike Duggan, gives his remarks during the press conference and groundbreaking of the 22-acre Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park on Detroit's West Riverfront.

Ralph Wilson grew up in the Detroit area, graduated from the University of Virginia, and returned to the University of Michigan to study law. His studies were interrupted by his World War II naval service in both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres. 

Once he returned, he worked in the insurance business owned by his father and over time, expanded his work into construction, radio, television and professional football.

He's best known, however, as the founder and 54-year owner of the Buffalo Bills, which played in four Super Bowls.

At the time of his death in 2014, the Grosse Pointe Shores resident was the oldest owner in the NFL at age 95. 

The William Davidson Sport House will have a raised canopy and skylight in a multi-use flexible space for programs and events.

A foundation was founded in his name vowing to create lasting change in Western New York and Southeast Michigan. Their programs include supporting early childhood and youth activities, parks and trails, aiding working families and caregivers, entrepreneurship and economic development, and supporting other nonprofits in their initiatives.

The park will feature a water garden, the William Davidson Sport House, the Delta Dental Play Garden with an array of animal structures and the DTE Foundation Hill, an expansive lawn for special events. 

A water garden is part of the plan.
Outdoor movies on the lawn are planned.

The $5 million four-acre playground will have a 20-foot bear play-structure that children can climb up and slide down as well as otters and beavers.

The William Davidson Sport House will have a raised canopy and skylight in a multi-use flexible space for programs and events.

Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II, State of Michigan, gives his remarks during the press conference and groundbreaking of the 22-acre Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park on Detroit’s West Riverfront.

Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist said similar historical investments are being made in Michigan's state and local parks.

"I want to congratulate the broad coalition that made today happen. The result is going to be an international jewel," said Gilchrist, a board member of the conservancy. "I'm here as a father whose children play in this grass. I'm excited about how this will draw families and create memories on the west riverfront."

DTE Energy Foundation contributed $2.5 million to support Foundation Hill, which is expected to be a popular destination for concerts, movies in the park, outdoor fitness classes and sledding in the winter.

Other supporters include Rachel Bendit and Mark Bernstein, providing $1.5 million for programming geared toward climate-change awareness. The Mort and Brigitte Harris Foundation made a $1.5 million investment in educational programming. Sarah and Chip McClure made a gift of $500,000 and the Michigan Department, Environment, Great Lakes and Energy provided $1 million in support of the environmental clean-up. 

David Egner, President & CEO, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, gives his remarks during the press conference and groundbreaking of the 22-acre Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park on Detroit’s West Riverfront.

“Today’s groundbreaking milestone would not be possible if not for the bold and ambitious vision set forth by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and their partners nearly 20 years ago to develop five-and-a-half miles of riverfront,” said David Egner, president and CEO of the foundation. “The Conservancy has led with community voice in every step to plan the future Ralph Wilson Park – and paired with the incredible collaboration and support across multiple entities and organizations – will contribute to this park reaching its full potential as a beloved destination for Detroiters and visitors from across the region and beyond. It’s this dedication and teamwork that our founder Ralph Wilson valued very much throughout his life.”

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_