Editorial: Wilson donation shows philanthropy's promise

The Detroit News

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation's $100 million donation to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and its connecting pathways is an example of the vital role philanthropy is playing in the city's rebuilding.

Foundations are the strong third leg of the stool supporting Detroit's revival. Business is pouring investment dollars into commercial projects that show promise for a healthy return. Government is supporting that effort with infrastructure funding and other resources.

And philanthropic giving is providing some of the luxuries that government can't afford to pay for right now.

"The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation's $100 million donation to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is philanthropy playing  a part in the city."

Think the Q-line, the rescue of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Campus Martius and now a world-class park on the west riverfront.

The RiverFront Conservancy's 22-acre West Riverfront Park will help complete the 5.5-mile river walk from the Belle Isle Bridge to the Ambassador Bridge. 

Designed by renowned landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh (Maggie Daley Park in Chicago, Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York), Detroit's newest park is destined to become both a tourist attraction and a gathering spot for the community.

It's state-of-the-art playgrounds, nature features and beach cove will give Detroit an outdoor recreation area to match any in the country.

The cost is pegged at $55 million to $60 million, for which the conservancy is now in a fundraising drive.

The Ralph C. Wilson Foundation is giving the effort a huge boost with $40 million for the buildout and $10 million for long-term maintenance. Another $50 million is targeted at completing pathways spreading out from the park throughout the region.

A similar amount is being donated by the foundation for a park in Buffalo, New York, on Lake Erie, where the late Wilson, a Detroit business titan, owned the Bills football team.

Wilson, who died four years ago, left his $1.2 billion fortune to the foundation with the instructions to spend it on quality-of-life projects in Detroit and Buffalo over 20 years.

The foundation has 16 years left to spend down the money, which with interest and earnings will ultimately generate $2 billion in donations.

It's enough to make a significant impact on two cities that have gone through similar challenges.

How the West Riverfront Park germinated is also worth noting. This is not the vision of either the Wilson foundation or the conservancy. Rather, a group of community members was drafted to study the best parks in the nation, and match the possibilities with the needs of Detroiters. The Wilson foundation helped fund that effort as well.

The parks in both Buffalo and Detroit will be called the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial parks, in honor of what would have been their benefactor's 100th birthday this month. 

It's a great gift to the city, one that will change both the look of the riverfront and the image of Detroit as a whole.

And it's happening because a right-minded businessman chose to leave the fruits of his very successful life for an entire region to enjoy.