Belle Isle committee won’t back up claims about park improvements

Belle Isle Conservancy. Photo by Steve Neavling.
Belle Isle Conservatory. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Under state control, Belle Isle is more popular and safer than ever.

At least, that’s what the Belle Isle Parks Advisory Committee, which reports to the DNR, told the public at its meeting last week.

In a meeting that more resembled a pep rally, committee members repeatedly asserted that four million people have visited the island so far this year, which works out to nearly 17,000 a day.

“Crime is at an all-time low,” was the entire report of the island’s state police chief.

Neither assertion was supported by any evidence or even any explanation of how the claims were arrived at.

Anyone who is a regular visitor to the island would dispute the attendance estimate. And anyone with any sense of the park’s history would dispute the state police claim.

Nonetheless, the good news kept flowing: The giant slide is doing giant business, two fishing piers are about to be renovated, and six to ten weddings are taking place on the island every weekend.

However, it took some prompting for anyone to report on the well-publicized flood in the aquarium after a recent rainstorm – and then Katy Wyerman of the Belle Isle Conservancy even put a positive spin on that, saying it’s helped publicize the fact that the aquarium was reopened in 2012, and it’s going to help with fundraising.

In passing, it was noted that $47,000 has been spent on repairing frequent water main breaks on the island this summer. No discussion of that issue ensued.

The committee is supposed to have eight members. Only three were present – and DNR regional supervisor Mike Terrell sat at the table substituting for the absent DNR member. He wasn’t introduced, and he’d turned the actual member’s nameplate around so it wouldn’t face the audience.

Even some committee members seemed to be in the dark. If there were four million visitors, Michael Curis wondered how much new revenue was flowing into the DNR from people buying the $11 state recreation passports required for entrance.

He got no answer. Instead, Terrell asserted the state has spent more than $20 million on the island since taking it over from the city in February 2014. He also claimed that more than half the DNR budget for all state parks goes to Belle Isle. Again, neither claim was substantiated.

A handout said “public workshops” would be among “next steps” in the island’s “strategic planning process” – but there was no mention of them at the meeting, and the long-term planning process so far has been conducted out of the public eye.

The next advisory committee meeting will be at 10 a.m. on Sept. 15 at the Flynn Pavilion on the island. Members of the public get three minutes of public comment at the end of each meeting – though after such comments this time, committee members reacted angrily and defensively to points that were raised.

Even if visitors to Belle Isle are not actually at an all-time high, the state’s self-assessment of its stewardship definitely is.

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Michael Betzold

Michael Betzold is a former Free Press reporter and longtime area freelance journalist. He wrote Queen of Diamonds, a history of Tiger Stadium. He lives on Detroit’s east side.