City leaders ignore alternative plan to save, improve Belle Isle; time running out

By Janet Braunstein

There’s another proposal for Belle Isle, another possibility worth exploring before Detroit signs the park over to the state of Michigan. But the players deciding Belle Isle’s future have chosen not to look.

The man behind it is Michael Moodenbaugh, who bought Boblo Island with a partner in 1993 and reopened the beloved Canadian amusement park in the middle of the Detroit River for one last season. It was supposed to be just the start of a new life for the amusement park, but Moodenbaugh’s plans died on Sept. 24, when he was thrown from a Bronco II that rolled at the edge of a tricky I-75 ramp in Toledo.

His then-business partners closed the island within days and sold it for private residential development at a fraction of what it would have netted if they’d understood the value of the things on the island. They were interested in the land, not the park. Moodenbaugh’s injuries almost killed him. He spent nearly a month in an induced coma. He uses a wheelchair. He fought for his life, then his breath, then his strength, then his adjustment to a new life.

He’s a stubborn man. And for some reason, ever since he woke to learn his dream park had been sold out from under him, he’s wanted to come back to Detroit and build what he’d planned for Boblo: an indoor/outdoor waterpark and hotel.

“I love the people. I was surprised. They were so warm and supportive and helpful. Detroit? I see this as an underserved market. I saw it back when we bought Boblo, that the future for Detroit was more than people realized.”

The title of the brief memo he brought to a city parks and recreation planning meeting in July: “Belle Isle Boblo II Proposal.”

The memo barely sketches his proposed private/public plan: to lease up to a tenth of Belle Isle for a waterpark, hotel, and a marina, and to maintain, improve, manage and operate the entire island for the city. Entry remains free. His group, since named Belle Isle Partners Inc., spends $100 million in stages on the resort development. It creates up to 400 full-time and 800 part-time jobs, and works with local churches to find people to fill them.

The group brings back ferry service between the Belle Isle and the mainland. It reopens the children’s zoo. It restores the second nine holes of the golf course, builds and runs an information center and 10 concession stands, and manages summer events including free concerts, the Detroit Grand Prix, and the annual marathon and triathlon. It cares for and improves the conservatory and botanical garden, Peace Carillon Tower, casino, aquarium, light house, band shell, athletic fields, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, James Scott Fountain, flower clock, and all the other attractions and monuments. It cleans out the canals and clears out trash and underbrush. It protects the natural environment and uses green technology wherever possible.

It saves the City of Detroit as much as $240 million in maintenance and improvement costs over the initial 30-year lease, and it shares the profits from all the island events with the city. It receives no tax abatements

Belle Isle is Detroit history on a charm bracelet. The people of Detroit have been depositing jewels and gifts there since it was created in 1845. Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of New York City’s Central Park, created a master design in the 1880s. Most of its buildings were designed by Albert Kahn, Eero Saarinen, and George D. Mason.

The better each and every piece is maintained and run, the more there is to entertain people who stay at or visit the proposed waterpark and hotel.

When Moodenbaugh sat down with city council members JoAnn Watson, Kwame Kenyatta, and James Tate in July, he left expecting further discussions with Detroit City Council, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (now known as Pure Michigan), and other interested parties.

Either Moodenbaugh or someone from his team has made repeated calls to those agencies and to the offices of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder. No one has returned them. As Kenyatta noted at last week’s council meeting, no one has considered another proposal. Instead, a representative of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation dismissed the proposal memo as “inadequate and not viable.” His review astutely noted that “this proposal is very limited on details.”

It was supposed to be. Got questions? Moodenbaugh’s ready to talk. “The first thing they have to do,” he said, “is call back.”

When Moodenbaugh came to Detroit the first time, he knew about hard work and success. He made his first million before he was 30, according to a 1996 Seattle Times article.

He and his then-partner Jeffrey Stock started out brokering sales of houses and apartments in Seattle. Then they bought rundown office buildings, renovated and modernized them, and filled them with tenants who used the high-tech communications systems known as the one-man office suite. As some of their tenants’ businesses grew, Moodenbaugh and Stock bought and modernized more office space to accommodate them.

Then they bought a failing, rundown amusement park called Enchanted Village and Wild Waves. Moodenbaugh says they intended to tear down the park and build a shopping mall.

“But once I got there, I could see that it was losing money because of an antiquated management style and lack of technology,” Moodenbaugh said. The park made a profit just short of $1 million the first year and $2 million in the second, “and we were just getting started on Christmas lights” – installing permanent, high-tech holiday lighting.

In the third year, something in an amusement-park trade publication caught Moodenbaugh’s attention: an auction for a rundown amusement park on an island in the Detroit River between Canada and the United States.

In February 1993, Moodenbaugh and Stock, backed by Seattle real-estate developer Larry Benaroya, won the island, the amusement park, and the land on the Ontario coast that held parking and a dock for the Boblo boats, altogether for $3.7 million. Moodenbaugh sold his share of the Seattle amusement park to Stock, who stayed in Seattle.

Moodenbaugh and his eager young team had 45 days to clean, repair, paint and improve rides, buildings and grounds; upgrade the marina; hire and train 1,000 employees; recover and run the two Boblo ferry/party boats and other ships; and complete Canadian and U.S. government maritime and customs red tape before the park opened that May. “Boblo was much more complicated because there was no other way to get on the island.”

They had to book school and church groups as fast as they could. They had to generate radio, TV and print publicity. Moodenbaugh saw that without new rides, the park needed another way to attract customers. They started scheduling free concerts for weekends and handing out tickets in cities and towns within driving distance. “The money’s in the concessions,” the food and beverages and souvenirs people buy while they’re on the island, Moodenbaugh said.

Although people flocked to the island, concession stands did steady business, and boats filled the marina and harbor, Boblo didn’t make money that season, and it didn’t make back the money Moodenbaugh spent on improving, promoting, and running it during those eight months. Benaroya, who’d also backed the Seattle amusement and waterpark that made money instantly and repaid him early, had loaned the Boblo partnership $7.5 million at 25 percent interest.

Moodenbaugh had to find other financing to buy out Benaroya and give the park time to realize the revenue from all the group bookings for the coming school year. He found it from at least one private lender. “I gave a verbal commitment to help Michael,” Oregon lender Robert Jarvis told the Seattle Times in 1996. “I had a lot of faith in him, and if he hadn’t gotten hurt, I’d probably own the thing and we’d be running it together.” Jarvis told the paper that Benaroya should have given Moodenbaugh more time and more room to do the job. “In a turnaround situation, you have to be prepared for losses in the first couple of years.”

But Moodenbaugh was still wrestling with Benaroya to finalize the deal when the SUV rolled off the Interstate ramp and onto the grounds of the Toledo Hospital, a level 1 acute care trauma center. Hospital employees taking smoking breaks behind the hospital saw the truck flip and eject the passenger. People grabbed stretchers and ran to help.

That was that for Boblo. It was the beginning of wisdom for Moodenbaugh. “If I were offered those terms and that timeline today, I’d pass.”

From Boblo, he learned to protect himself and his project from the very beginning, to set up a team that can and will run the business in his absence, to work with partners who have the same interests, to be less brash and more wary.

Michael Moodenbaugh is a stubborn man. At a physical rehabilitation center near his parents’ home in Washington State, he argued with physical therapists and doctors who said he couldn’t breathe enough to sit up because he wasn’t trying. When they wouldn’t listen, he found someone who would: a surgeon who detected and repaired a hole in one of his lungs. “I felt better as soon as I woke up.”

He spent seven years rebuilding his strength, endurance, and health. He built a new life, married a new wife. When he was ready, he started looking for space to build a waterpark and/or amusement park – in Detroit. He’s never stopped trying.

He’s been thinking about this for a long time. Maybe it’s a good idea for Belle Isle. Maybe it’s not. Doesn’t someone this determined deserve to at least be heard?

Janet Braunstein is a journalist who has worked for the Associated Press, Detroit Free Press and freelance magazines. She also writes for the web.