Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 13, 2013

Michigan board approves state lease of Belle Isle

DAVID EGGERT
Associated Press

---- — LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan will operate and maintain Detroit's 985-acre Belle Isle as a state park under a lease agreement approved Tuesday by a state board that rejected an alternative proposed by the City Council.

The city in bankruptcy proceedings will save up to $6 million a year throughout the 30-year deal. Gov. Rick Snyder has pledged to invest $10 million to $20 million in the first three years of state management of the island, which sits in the middle of the Detroit River and will become Michigan's 102nd state park.

The City Council killed the new lease after it was signed Oct. 1 and came up with a 10-year alternative designed to get more assurances that the state will definitely make promise improvements. But the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan, comprised of three members of Snyder's administration, unanimously backed the 30-year lease that also is supported by Detroit's state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.

"I think the longer lease gives us a better opportunity to actually get the improvements done," said Nancy Duncan, chief deputy state budget director and a member of the loan board. "There will be savings for 30 years whereas the proposal from the council only guarantees savings for 10 years."

Michigan's emergency manager law tasked the board with determining which proposal "best serves the interest" of Detroit residents.

Belle Isle has beaches, ball fields, playgrounds, a small golf course and a rich history. It once had a zoo with seals, and was a training ground for World War II troops. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who had a hand in New York's Central Park, and its conservatory and aquarium were designed by noted architect Albert Kahn.

The state budget sets aside $2.5 million for management of the park, and state police have designated additional troopers to handle security, freeing up 22 city police officers to patrol other parts of crime-ridden Detroit.

Before the board's 3-0 vote at the end of an hour-long meeting in Lansing, Detroit Councilman James Tate said the council recognizes that partnering with the state is a great opportunity to improve Belle Isle. But he noted that Senate Appropriations Chairman Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township, has questioned spending money on a new park when money is tight to maintain other state parks.

"It does make us pause," Tate said.

There will be an annual $11 per-vehicle admission charge, the same cost for entering any state park. The fee also will cover entry to Michigan's other 101 parks. There will be no charge for pedestrians, bicyclists or visitors who arrive by bus.

The board's action begins a 90-day transition period, which means the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will begin managing the island in mid-February. A state budget spokesman said the Snyder administration at this point does not plan to ask lawmakers to earmark more than the $2.5 million already allocated for the island this fiscal year.

It is unclear how much Snyder will request for the budget starting in October 2014 and, if re-elected, beyond.

"I don't have any pre-conceived notions about it or commitments," Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, told reporters when asked about spending more money on the new state park.

He cautioned that he is "not excited" to allocate more money to Detroit but remains open to proposals. He said legislators have done some significant things for the city — passing a plan to improve its decrepit lighting system, freezing its income tax rate and creating a regional transit authority to pave the way for a streetcar line.

Also Tuesday, Detroit Mayor-elect Mike Duggan was in the Capitol meeting with lawmakers.

"This is not a day where he came asking. It was a day where he came to seek to continue to build relationships," said House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall.