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Proposed Detroit Park Closures an Opportunity to Think Outside of the Sandbox

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Like me, you've probably kept up with the plans to lease Belle Isle to the State of Michigan as a cost saving measure for the city. After hearing city council members talk about the first offer, I agreed that all parties needed to go back to the drawing board, and they did. But the recent announcement that the deal has fallen apart takes us right back to the drawing board. Not a bad place to be if you don't mind thinking outside the box.

I'm not saying that the deal should die, but I am saying that the fate of 50 or more neighborhood city parks should not be tethered to a state deal with an impatient timeline. The deal -- which would purportedly relieve the city of a $6 million financial burden -- could still go forward should the state decide to return it to the table in some agreeable form. But the millions of dollars that would result in an agreement could be used to address some of the myriad crime and safety issues in the city while the fate of these parks could be left to those of us who value having these spaces in our communities.

Green space and parks are included in Detroit's Long-Term Plan and we know that any plan -- especially one that is going to require up to 50 years to fully implement -- has flexibility built into its framework. So it looks like we need to look at ways to disconnect the Belle Isle deal from our neighborhood parks by implementing some innovative ideas for these spaces ahead of schedule.

The city's current costs associated with maintaining parks is not the same as it would be for other entities (public, private and non-profit) taking on the same or part of that responsibility. Community stakeholders and other entities could likely do more with less and develop innovative uses for these parks that still promote the right sense of place.

I thought of a couple right off the top of my head and more than likely they are being done elsewhere. We could explore:

Renaming the Parks:

Any historical or honorary designation that exists with these spaces is going to be lost with their closure anyway. Much like stadiums and other facilities, let's open up these spaces for naming rights, providing an opportunity for companies, organizations or even families to support the space(s) financially through lease or long-term contracts or some sort. If there are ancestors of those whose names are currently attached to these spaces, they may wish to maintain that honor and should be given the opportunity to contribute financially to the upkeep of the space in order to do so.

Providing Innovative Tax Incentives and Credits:

Although the city is cash-strapped, the cost of closing more parks could ultimately trump any potential gain in tax revenue if the land is sold for some other use or if they are left to languish and become dangerous spaces. Maintaining these parks as active community spaces of some sort is preferable, especially since we have had closures in the past that now result in a disproportionate number of public parks to residents.

Offering the space to neighborhood/community organizations, block clubs, companies and businesses with creative tax and tax credit incentives could result in economic support of the spaces. Provide tax incentives to residents who partner with entities, taking on a substantial responsibility for the space.

Strategic Partnerships

Partner with those living in proximity to these parks to increase a sense of community ownership and improve upkeep.

Mower Gang

Partner with organizations like Detroit Mower Gang -- "a bunch of do-gooders that refuses to let parkland go to waste" -- and help them to replicate their work in park communities.

Partner with entities like Healthy Detroit, an organization that has partnered with the National Prevention Council to implement the National Prevention Strategy to help Detroit focus on prevention and wellness.

Expand beyond just swings, monkey bars and sandboxes think:

  • Outdoor exercise classes in partnership with local gyms, practitioners and exercise studios
  • Horticultural and agricultural education in partnership with DPS and local universities
  • Bike, skate and skateboard instruction and trails in partnership with local businesses like the The Hub and Shinola
  • Doggie meet-ups and animal care instruction in partnership with companies like Canine to Five
  • Pop-up events for neighborhood micro enterprises
  • The possibilities are both endless and exciting.

Incidentally, as a resident of Island View Village, Belle Isle is my neighborhood park, so I've already purchased a state park pass ... just in case.

This post was originally published on Detroit Unspun.