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State Signs Deal To Lease Belle Isle

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Belle Isle bridge. (Credit: Bill Szumanski/WWJ)

Belle Isle bridge. (Credit: Bill Szumanski/WWJ)

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After graduating from the University of Michigan, Sandra McNeill...
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DETROIT (WWJ) – The state has signed a deal to lease Belle Isle from Detroit.

Gov. Rick Snyder said the plan will save Detroit at least $4 million a year.

“One way to revitalize Detroit is by revitalizing Belle Isle, one of Detroit’s most iconic places,” said Snyder, in a media release. “This state-city partnership will provide a clean, safe park environment and enhance Belle Isle for citizens while still allowing the city to retain ownership of one of its jewels.

“This lease will save Detroit much-needed funds as the city emerges from financial crisis and will generate economic development and neighborhood revitalization that are core to Detroit’s comeback,” he said.

Under the deal —  a 30 year-term with two 15-year renewals — the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will take over management of the 985-acre park, and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) will handle the bridge and the roads.

In order to get in, those who drive a car, beginning in January, will need a Michigan Recreation Passport, which costs $11 per-vehicle annually. Those who enter on foot or on bikes will still get in for free.

Speaking live on WWJ Newsradio 950, City Council President Saunteel Jenkins said got a call this week from Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who let her know a lease was back on the table.

She was not told, however, how close this was to a done deal.

Jenkins said, while she doesn’t want to speculate as to where other council members stand on the issue, she is not opposed to a lease by the state.

“As long as the lease provides protection for the city, as long as it provides a way for us to get out if the state does not live up to their end of the deal, and as long as Detroiters continue to have access to an improved park,” Jenkins said.

The lease was signed by Orr, Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, on Monday, and then by Gov. Snyder on Tuesday.

Under Public Act 436, the emergency manager law, City Council has 10 days to approve or disapprove the lease. If Council rejects the lease, council members will then have an additional seven days to present an alternative plan that would save the city the same amount of money or more.

Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, who was informed of the deal on Monday, questioned why the issue wasn’t on the council’s agenda on Tuesday. “I have a lot of concerns about what’s going on,” Jones said. “I believe the decision should at least come to this body … the council body.”

Jenkins said there are provisions in the EM law that provide for input from the legislative body on the sale or lease of property, and they’re looking into it.

“So, I’ve requested today that our legislative policy division give us an opinion on what our next step should be as it relates to a lease for Belle Isle,” she said.

The governor and Mayor Dave Bing, earlier this year, put together a plan for the island — but Snyder withdrew the offer after city council members failed to vote on it.

Owned by the city since 1879. Belle Isle had suffered in recent years as a cash-strapped Detroit can’t afford repairs.

“Detroit’s current financial condition prohibits the city from investing in the much-needed restoration of Belle Isle,” said Bing. “As I stated last year when a proposed lease agreement was developed, my administration strongly believes the state park structure is the best option for managing and maintaining the island and restoring it to its grandeur.”

Orr, who in July filed for bankruptcy on behalf of the city, has estimated Detroit’s long-term debt at a staggering $18 billion. A trial to determine whether Detroit qualifies for Chapter 9 protection is scheduled to begin later this month.

The state’s 2014 fiscal year budget, which began Tuesday, contains $2.5 million for “potential state management of Belle Isle.”

If the deal does go through, expect big changes at the park right away.

DNR spokesman Ed Golder says that plumbing at the park is a priority.

“That certainly is among the top items on our list; to make sure that there are open and functioning restrooms there,” Golder said.

Golder said the DNR would have $10 million to spend on park upgrades within the first year and half, from grants and other sources.   They will be hiring, he said, and the Recreation Passport will be available for purchase at the gate.

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