This week I ventured away from home and found myself at a meeting with other Park & Recreation State Association Directors in Detroit, Michigan, and as you might imagine when a group of park professionals get together in another state, we get to see a few parks. That was the case earlier this week. The City of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013. So what happened to their parks? Nonprofits, conservatories, and business districts stepped up to take care of them, and from what I saw, they are thriving.
One evening, we had dinner and fun at Belle Isle. Belle Isle Park is a 2.5-mile-long, 982-acre island park, located in the international waters of the Detroit River. Inspired by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s design in the 1880s, the park was created to provide an urban oasis in Detroit. Belle Isle has significant natural, architectural, and cultural resources. Almost one-third of the island is a natural wooded area, and the park features a number of historic public landmarks including the Belle Isle Aquarium, Belle Isle Casino, Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the James Scott Memorial Fountain and a giant slide, much like the ones you see at state/county fairs where you sit on a mat to slide down. The Casino is not the type we associate with Las Vegas. From its Italian origin, during the 19th century, the term casino came to include public buildings used to host civic town functions, including dancing, gambling, music listening, and sports.
In 2014, Belle Isle became Michigan’s 102nd state park. Today, the park continues to be owned by the City of Detroit and is managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) under a 30-year lease as part of the City’s financial restructuring. The DNR manages the day to day operations of the park, including event bookings, infrastructure management, and environmental management. The Belle Isle Conservatory focuses awareness, historic preservation, and fundraising for capital projects Last year Belle Isle was the most visited Michigan state park with 4.3 million visitors.
In addition to exploring the park on a bike, I also learned a few interesting tidbits to share. Opened in 1904, the Belle Isle Aquarium is the oldest aquarium in the country, the Flynn Pavilion where we had dinner was originally built as an ice skating rink and is now a special events venue, the park is the site of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix
and when the park isn’t being used for auto racing, it is sometimes iced over and used for police driving skills training.