Belle Isle is the little natural jewel, located in the middle of Detroit. With a colorful, interesting past, Belle Isle has become a great spot to not only enjoy the natural beauty of the isle but also providing great views of downtown Detroit. Ron Olson, Chief of the Department of Natural Resources, shares what makes Belle Isle a top spot in Detroit.
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Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:00] Hello everyone. And welcome to the show. I’m your host Cliff DuVernois. And today we’re going to be taking another trip South. It’s showing Detroit a little bit of love, and we’re going to be talking about Belle Isle with the Chief of Parks and Recreation for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
That’s a mouthful, please. Welcome to the show. Ron Olson, Ron, how are you?
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:00:52] good. Thank you very much for the opportunity.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:55] Thanks for being on the show today. I really do appreciate it. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about where you’re from? Where did you grow up?
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:01:01] well I’m I grew up in Minnesota, around him in Minneapolis actually. And, went to high school in Bloomington, Minnesota. And then. worked, for up parks, regional parks system, and a little bit for the Minneapolis park board. And then, went on to, I went to undergrad at university of Minnesota and then went on to grad school at Indiana university and worked for a County there and then worked in Maryland and then in Michigan and, for the city of Ann Arbor.
And now for the state of Michigan,
Cliff Duvernois: [00:01:34] So it sounds like you’ve kind of had your, your fingers in the, you know, parks and recreation for a long time. Is there, is there something about it that’s attracted you to, to work in this, in this industry?
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:01:47] Yeah, I had, we were always playing, you know, I played a lot of sports and we had, were, did a lot of outdoor recreation. you know, we had, a place on a summer place on a Lake near. The North of the twin cities and, You know, did a lot of fishing and water skiing and boating and this and that.
And then we go into Northern Minnesota in the wilderness and spend some time up there and different things. And so I have a lot of kind of angles from very active sports to, doing outdoor things. So it kind of, grew up with a lot of variety of experiences in that regard. So thought that this would be a good, Career path.
And there was a program for parks and recreation administration at the university of Minnesota. And, went through that and went on from there.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:36] No, I know you, you said you, you. From Minnesota to Indiana, I believe you mentioned Maryland in there. And then finally into Michigan, what was it that brought you to Michigan?
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:02:46] well, the, I was, you know, just, I had worked 11 years for the city of Rockville, Maryland, and, just, was kind of thinking about coming back towards the Midwest and, One thing led to another. And the job in Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor had an interesting reputation, a very good quality of life and very supportive of, of, of that sort of thing.
And so, applied for the job and was successful and yeah. I went there and spent, worked for the city for over 20 years, doing parks and recreation and became, I was an interim city administrator twice. And then, what did parks and rec for awhile a couple, few years and was an associate city administrator as well.
So I got involved in a little bit wider berth of, of municipal parks and rec, but also other municipal services.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:03:39] Nice. And I know today we’re going to be talking about, and there’s probably a lot that falls under your purview, but I wanted to talk to you specifically. About bell Island. Why don’t you, why don’t you talk to us a little bit about what bell Island is today?
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:03:55] Well, Belle isle park was created in the late 18 hundreds. It’s an Island park. It’s just under a thousand acres, in size. It’s very iconic. It, has, many historic buildings on it. It has a. A very classic conservatory. It has, one of the first, public aquariums in the United States. it has, a what’s called a casino, which is a, basically a social gathering hall that was all of, which were built in the early 19 hundreds, very classic structures.
the, the design of the park. Was inspired by Frederick law Olmsted, back in. Many many years ago, back in the early 19 hundreds. And, when he was in his heyday and the planning of the park kind of took on a few gyrations and the, philanthropist donated the fountain and that was created, some years later.
And, And then there was a golf course there and, and, athletic fields and things that emerged over time. There’s a unique, natural area on the, in the, park that has some, specimen trees, many of which that would rival any of the large, specimen trees you would find anywhere in that. State of Michigan.
And so it really is a unique landscape. It has a very active areas and of course it’s surrounded by water and the, the channel, that the freighters go on and pass through the great lakes pass by there. And of course across the water is Canada. And then on the other side is the mainland of the city of Detroit.
Well, the oldest roaring club in the United States is, is on the Island that utilizes through a, lease a, a building there that was once kind of a boat club, facility. And, And many other picnic shelters and gathering spots and things like that. A nice beach that’s there. And, and I mentioned the golf course and there’s actually two there’s one on there.
That’s no longer operating. And then one, a small learning golf course that continues to operate. and we have many, allies that work with us and, we have contractors that we have concession bitters and then the bailout Conservancy, plays a strong role and they operate the aquarium under a lease agreement with us as does.
I mentioned the rowing club that leases that, historic, boat club building, but all in all it has, you know, it’s a very iconic, very treasured gym. Know, obviously with all of that said, we became involved in it through a lease arrangement back in 2014, third, it was discussed in 2013 and, we became, operating, for, Extended period of time, a 30 year lease with optional years after that.
And this was during the time when the city went through its bankruptcy, situation. And, we were asked, by the then governor and, and city officials, there was a discussion about what the state could do to help the city. And one of them was we could help manage, A park of that size because we had, we have a hundred and over a hundred state parks.
And, so that became a reality. Although we were already managing Milliken state park on the riverfront down, off of Atwater street, we’d been doing that since the early Prince 2003. So we’ve had experience working in the city of Detroit. So that’s, you know, obviously the other one is the big gateway bridge.
the, MacArthur bridge, which is, Iconic in its own. Right. And we do have, partnerships with the, in the state with a M dot Michigan department of transportation. And then the Michigan state police, assists along with our DNR conservation officers to provide, public safety, on the park.
And that helped out the city because then they could. focus the, their policing attention into that, into the Detroit, neighborhoods and so forth. And that’s the way in a nutshell, how the, this all kind of fits together and what the chronic nature of the park. Okay.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:08:19] No. It’s my understanding. If I read this correctly, that bell isle, is actually the largest Island park in the us.
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:08:28] Yep. I believe that is correct.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:08:30] Excellent. Now with regards to the park, I’d like to go back and talk about a little bit about the history of, bell Isles. So it was my understanding that, that at one point in time, way back in the early days that a farmer used to keep his pigs on Belisle and that’s how the whole thing got started.
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:08:50] That’s what, that’s my understanding. Yes. And it’s got a, there’s a lot of historical aspects to it, but that, that is one, Way back when. And, but, and then the park has been utilized for a variety of things over time, but all in all it wants the thing transformed itself into a park and was established in the late 18 hundreds.
It is. Evolved as a public park, over that period of time and, the, facilities that were added and, and enriched the opportunities there. And obviously one thing I didn’t mention is that if you look at the old photographs, the, the, There was a canal system that was created through the park to create opportunities for canoeing.
And, and today it’s used heavily by kayakers and other forms of, of, non-motorized, conveyances. But back in the day, you can see all photographs of people canoeing and, tracking through the waterway as well, which kind of created that kind of unique atmosphere. And then. They utilized a couple of the inland lakes on the, park as well.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:10:01] With regards to, it seems like Belle isle. has a lot of outdoor activities and kayaking, being amongst them. But I also saw that you have snow equipment or rental. What kind of snow sports do you have there?
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:10:19] Well, we had, attempted to offer, through a concession, the opportunity for, cross country skiing and that sort of thing. The, the issue is of course the snow is, Up and down, that we get in the Southern part of the state. So those kinds of activities come and go and it’s difficult to sustain them.
The, people do, Ice skate and things like that. And the canals, we don’t have a robust, we don’t really have us ice skating rental and things like that at this point. But part of that is because of the, the, the, up and down of the weather patterns has made those kinds of things a little bit difficult because of safety, because of the ice thickness and things like that.
But yeah. But it is, it is utilized, people come out there and do all kinds of things in the winter time. When the, when the snow is, is proper for the kinds of activities they may want to do.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:11:19] Sure sure. The. When, when, because I know that you said that, that the, the, the park area is, it was converted in, in the 18 hundreds. What was the, what was the decision to start turning bell isle into a park?
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:11:35] Well, I, the best I can say is I think the leaders of the city and the community itself and the, the, the, the city of Detroit was, you know, you know, starting to grow at that time. And I think people realized that this was a pretty unique landscape and like many big cities, Frederick law Olmsted was a visionary and he, was, engaged to some extent to provide that vision here, just like he has in, many of the larger urban communities around the country, where he had a hand in, some of the iconic, Park developments like, you know, the Boston commons and things like that, central park in New York and things like that.
And I think liking to that, there’s a whole, now, a association that’s framed around the Olmsted parks, group and people that want to keep the, the legacy, excuse me, his legacy. alive, because he was such a visionary at the time and Frederick law, excuse me, Olmsted believed in, at that time sustainability.
And, he was very forward-thinking in that regard. so he, His model was to not build, amenities that couldn’t be sustained over time. And, that’s why bell has a large natural area in a lot of open space. although some of the buildings that were built later on that were larger facilities were not part of the, his original vision, but, they, while they complemented it, but it was his, his, His building block was really nice landscapes and, sustainable, outdoor recreational experience space.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:24] So how many people then do you have that come out and visit the visit? Belisle.
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:13:30] Well right now, we’re this past year we will, should finish. W we had, had a record of 4.1 million visitors. And now according to our statistics, we do take car counts and extrapolate the numbers, but it looks like we’ll surpass 4.2 million. Visitors. And this is as far as we have done calculations, the second largest visited state park, if you will, it’s a bell, our park, but managed as a state park in the country.
And, Niagara falls, state park Niagara falls has more visitation than Belisle, but, it’s, it’s clearly one of the it’s clearly number, number two.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:14:13] Nice. Nice. And so for or people that are interested in, coming to Bella, wow. What would be, what would be like three things that you would recommend that people do when they come there?
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:14:27] Well, first of all, it, a recreation passport is needed and required. So to secure that, and that residents of the state can do that when they register their vehicles, when it comes up for renewal. And we urge people to do that. You can acquire one at the park, but, simpler to do it when you, register your car $12 and that covers you can have access to all state parks and boat launches, for a whole year for that.
Second of all, when you come on there, I would urge people to, to drive around the perimeter road. The speed limit is 25 and to take your time and just to kind of experience the entire landscape and, Take a rim ride rode around. It’s about just under six mile road ride. or if you have a bicycle to park your car and unload your bike and ride, it was, it gives you a little more closer feel for, what’s going on in the park.
And then, Once you do that and see what’s, the variety of landscapes then, to drive up insular Ru, which is, one of the middle of the middle roads that bisect the park from the, basically from East to West and drive up to the. Or, or ride your bike up to the conservatory and the aquarium. And during the daytime you can visit right now, they’re closed because of the COVID.
But in normal times, the corneum is open, defined hours and the there’s formal gardens to the West of the conservatory, but we really urge people to go take a look at that. And perhaps go inside the conservatory. Cause it is pretty spectacular as well as the aquarium, which is. You know, it was a very iconic architectural thing with, with a very cool, unique tile.
The building itself is something to Marvel at and let alone the fish that are in there. And then the new feature that’s been added is the old golf garden, which has been added just to the West of the formal garden, the conservatory. And that’s just was planted this past fall. or this fall, I should say, early, late summer fall.
And that was designed by, a, a world famous architect, mr. Old golf. And he, did the design, the landscape of the Highline in New York and many other iconic quarter cultural displays. And. So this, garden was designed by him and it was funded and net by donation and it has, it has a sustainable maintenance funding and that starting to take shape.
So people would want to certainly take a look at it yet. And then during the. the other feature would be to take a look at the fountain as well as the, the casino building, which is unique in of itself. But it’s not really a place where people going in and out of it’s used for people’s gatherings.
It’s kind of the people’s, gathering spot where they can rent it for, birthday parties, weddings, and. Graduation parties. And it’s a very iconic, kind of historic tradition for many people that reside in the city of Detroit to hold their important ceremonies and things like that in that facility.
So that’s what we would recommend sounds like a lot, but we would recommend a lot of times people go to a spot and they’ll realize the dynamics and then people like to. See things there’s in bald Eagle that nests on the Island and there’s variety, there’s white tail deer and other things in the wooded area.
And there’s some nature paths to go down. So it’s kind of, once you figure that out and you can decide what, what, what kinds of things you’re interested in?
Cliff Duvernois: [00:18:19] Sure thing. And I know that w you know what, right now with all the restrictions that are going on with, COVID talk to us a little bit about what are, what are some of the things that, that you and your staff have put into place to make sure that people can, can come and enjoy Belisle. but at the same point in time, make sure that they’re safe.
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:18:38] Well, we reopened on all of the bathrooms, of course, as a fall, purchases. Now that they’re, opening this in the summer, most of them, and they will close once we get. Little further into the fall. And then there’s, a indoor bathroom heated one, adjacent to the casino building on its West side. But, all of those are cleaned to CDC guidelines and you have to mask up to go inside of them.
And, but we we’ve keep encouraging it. We put up signs to have people come and enjoy yourself, but make sure you’re socially distance. And that if you do have a gathering a permitted event, there’s only, that’s restricted to less than a hundred. People based on that we follow the orders, executive orders and the health orders from the state.
And so that we have people in compliance and, and we just ask people to be patient, be respectful of other people’s space, becoming enjoy yourself, but, but, make sure that you. pay attention to, if you’re in a family group or, people that you’re in the same household, or what have you that in your cluster together, that’s one thing.
But when you engage with other people, we were asking, people to really, practice the six foot minimum separation distance and a mask up wherever appropriate.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:20:10] Sure thing. And anybody wants to learn more about Belisle or follow what it is that you’re doing online, what would be the best way for them to do that?
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:20:19] There’s a website for Belisle park. You just go on the DNR and just Google Belisle park, Michigan DNR. And you can, it’ll prompt you there and you can learn about the park. The, we have an advisory committee called the bell Island advisory committee and there’s. The records of their meetings, agendas, and when they meet and records and things like that, if people are interested in more detail things and, but that’s a good way to get a map and you can see images of the park and there’s some, there’s a couple of there’s at least one drone video.
That’s pretty good. That gives you an a couple minutes, gives you a real. Good thumbnail of what’s on the park. If you’ve never been there. And it’s it it’s worth taking a look at.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:06] Yeah, I know exactly what video you’re talking about. I watched it before the interview and it’s really well done. So, for our audience, we’ll make sure that we have all those links in the show notes down below. Ron, it’s been, it’s been great having you on the podcast today. Thank you so much for taking time out to talk to us,
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:21:22] Yeah, and we appreciate it. And, we hope that people have a chance to go out and take a look. If you haven’t been there in a long time and you grew up in Detroit and went somewhere else and said, I remember going there as a kid. Well, we want you to come back and take a look. And,
Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:37] bring your kids.
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:21:38] we’re always looking for.
People to help out and volunteerism. And so there’s a way to engage in lots of ways with a Belle Isle. So. All right. Thank you,
Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:48] All right. Thanks Ron.
Ron Olson, DNR, Belle Isle Detroit: [00:21:50] sir. Bye-bye.