Leasing Out Belle Isle to Help Detroit

Belle Isle, one of the many astonishing achievements of the old grand Detroit, is an island park only linked to Detroit by a pedestrian and automobile bridge. Little do people know that Belle Isle is the largest island park in the US and it is larger than the Central Park in Manhattan. Donated to the City of Detroit by a wealthy business man, it has become a public park since around the ninetieth century. The park, with a beautiful garden graced with sculpture by Marshal Frederick, a carillon tower, a conservatory designed by Albert Kahn, one of the oldest if not the oldest aquarium in the country, a magnificent fountain designed by Cass Gibert, a deer park and several lagoons, was close to being shut down during the many tough time Detroit was facing in the past 40 years. Like the rest of the amenities provided by the city, Belle Isle Park has been seen by the city as a major financial burden.

There has been many proposals about saving the park, but none of them was close to being practical since they all ask for money. Detroit is broke and it is not bailing out the park anytime soon. It has long been wrong for people to think about how to save the park. Manhattan will not need a Central Park if more than half of the city is empty and simply abandoned. The critical question here is how to use Belle Isle to help save Detroit.

Well, let’s start being creative about exploiting Belle Isle to help Detroit. Think of it this way, if your pocket is empty and your hands are tied, but you have an empty cottage with lots of rooms and you want to squeeze a bit of money from your property, you would probably rent out the rooms right? One of the biggest advantage of Belle Isle is that it is really an island and a park that practically no one lives on it. You can easily rent out the whole island as one piece.

But who is going to rent it? Keep in mind that we are talking about Detroit here. The city isn’t quite functioning and not everyone is willing to rent a place in Detroit. People are more interested in setting up a business in the neighboring suburbs such as Grosse Pointe or Ferndale which offer more stable and transparent economic environment. Well, if that is the case, why not renting out the island to a suburb that may want it? Since Detroit is incapable of redeveloping the island itself, it is right that the strategy proposed here should be about letting someone else who is capable to do it for you.

One may argue that instead of renting the island out, Detroit indeed has the option to get quick cash from the Island by selling it to the suburbs or even Canada across the river. But doing so would really anger the Detroiters and they may set up another riot like the infamous one happened in 1974. Let’s rephrase what is just proposed. What if Detroit rents the island to the suburbs or anyone to use for a long time? This length of time would be long enough that the island would be sufficiently developed. When the island is returned, Detroit can have what’s on it and in the meanwhile there will be revenue from the rent. It seems like a win-win situation and it certainly doesn’t sound as bad as “selling the island”. But “time is of the essence”, this lease would more likely be a fairly long one, maybe at least 10 to 20 years.

One of the potential renters would be China. I am pretty sure China wouldn’t mind having a piece of America for 20 years. If just 1% of Chinese comes to visit the Belle Isle, there will be 13 million visitors already. If each of them spends $1000 US outside the island, that will already generate $13 billion US not including other expenditure e.g. flight to Detroit.

To some people, leasing out the island for a long time may seem a little extreme or unconventional. But the situation in Detroit is equally extreme. Compared to all the other lame proposals on the street, this may have the greatest potential to work. Anyone has a better idea to share?

belle isle, detroit – 3:38pm, oct 5, 2009


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