By COREY WILLIAMS, Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) – A gem to some and wreck to others, Detroit’s Belle Isle has become the latest bone of contention between state officials offering to operate the poorly managed park and what some in the city see as too much outside interference.
The state’s commitment to improving the popular park surrounded by the Detroit River is listed under Annex E of the Financial Stability Agreement approved in April by Mayor Dave Bing and Gov. Rick Snyder.
Belle Isle would be designated “as part of a cooperative relationship with Milliken State Park” near downtown Detroit, according to the document.
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That would include a long-term lease. The state also would work with the city and Belle Isle Conservancy on a master plan for the island.
“We don’t think there should be a lease agreement,” said Councilman Kwame Kenyatta, who took part Wednesday in a rally opposing any state control. About 200 people showed up on Belle Isle for the rally.
“If the state wants to help they could have been helping years and years ago with Belle Isle,” he said. “They chose not to. There is no reason for Belle Isle to be leased away. If they want to have a partnership, there is a way without having control.”
The 985-acre park is in the middle of the Detroit River, has five miles of shoreline, including a beach. There is a small golf course, ball fields, playgrounds and picnic shelters.
Maintenance, like trash pickup and grass cutting is expensive. So are the salaries of the 36 or so city staffers who work on the island.
But Bing has been cutting costs wherever possible as the city digs out of a budget deficit of more than $200 million. Hundreds of workers face layoffs and pay has been slashed by 10 percent.
Belle Isle’s canals need dredging. Bike paths need work and restrooms need repairs.
“We’ve got to upgrade all of that stuff,” Bing told The Associated Press Thursday. “We’ve never, that I can remember, had the necessary funding to do any upgrades.”
Representatives for the state and city have been discussing the issue over the past two months.
“There have been no final decisions on Belle Isle, other than we want to see an improvement … with facilities, with all the maintenance,” Bing said. “Those are big things that have not been happening for years and years. When the state said they want to support an effort to help us improve Belle Isle, I’m all ears.
“The governor and I have not had any conversations about it. There are a lot of people that are getting really emotional about conversations that are going on.”
For years, discussions on implementing a vehicle fee to enter Belle Isle have been started and just as quickly ended.
Snyder told The Associated Press in a Friday interview that the chance to let Detroit continue to own what he calls “a gem of the city” while leasing it to the state for use as a state park is a “great opportunity.”
“We have (state) endowment funds available to help enhance it, to run it, to make it much nicer than it is today, and at the same time it would free up dollar resources that the city is putting into Belle Isle to put them in the neighborhoods, to do public safety, to do other important things in the city,” Snyder said. “So if you step back and look, isn’t that a win for everyone?”
Any support from the state under the financial stability agreement likely will include a fee similar to one used to drive into state parks.
“People support that if it’s under the control of the city where they pay their taxes,” Kenyatta said. “It is the only place – at this particular point in time – they can go and enjoy without a fee. No one wants to see the island go down or go into disrepair.”
Safea Pankey would not mind paying to drive onto Belle Isle as long as the park was clean and safe.
The 56-year-old Pankey, of West Bloomfield, also said a fee “would probably eliminate a lot of the riff raff.”
“If somebody is willing to pay money for entrance to the park, they’ll have pride in the park,” said Pankey, who brought her three grandchildren to Belle Isle Thursday. “It would be nice if they would beautify it.”
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