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DNR shares information on condition, options for Belle Isle Boathouse

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is reviewing options for the deteriorated Belle Isle Boathouse, located on the Detroit River in Belle Isle Park, and is inviting the public to learn more about those options and associated costs.

Anyone interested in the future of Belle Isle, broadly, and the boathouse, specifically – visitors, community members, stakeholders and others – is encouraged to visit the project webpage to learn about the options and share feedback by Dec. 31.

Constructed by the Detroit Boat Club in 1902, the 40,000-square-foot boathouse was, for many years, for the exclusive use of its members.

The facility, not to be confused with the Detroit Yacht Club, has been overseen and maintained by the Friends of Detroit Rowing since the mid-1990s under a lease agreement. The lease initially was held with the City of Detroit but transferred to the DNR in 2014 when the department assumed management of the island as a state park. The Friends are responsible for building upkeep, while the DNR handles the park's overall management.

Expanding damages, costs

In August 2022, the boathouse was deemed structurally unsound due to significant deterioration, including a collapsed floor, a caved-in roof, peeling exterior stucco, deteriorated steel and concrete structural members, and other structural needs.

The City of Detroit, the Friends of Detroit Rowing and the DNR commissioned several building and site assessments throughout the past 16 years. More recently, in 2019, the DNR and the Friends of Detroit Rowing jointly commissioned a building assessment and visioning development plan. At that time, the consultant’s estimate was $43.9 million to restore the boathouse facility.

Parkwide needs

The boathouse represents one of many proposed facilities under consideration for long-term feasibility at Belle Isle Park.

Overall, it’s estimated that at least $200 million is needed to address critical repairs on the island, including projects such as climate control for the Belle Isle Aquarium and Conservatory, structural and mechanical updates for the James Scott Memorial Fountain, and parkwide restroom and picnic shelter improvements.

Through many vital partnerships and grants, the DNR already has been able to invest more than $115 million for all capital investments on Belle Isle. Since assuming management of the island park nine years ago, the DNR has directed 45% of that total investment – $52 million in public funding – toward the preservation of the island’s public historic structures.

One such project underway is the $10 million restoration of the historic Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory dome.

“The DNR has been working toward a Belle Isle Boathouse solution through the commission of various studies, but we haven’t been successful in galvanizing interest in private or public funding to pay for the needed repairs,” said Ron Olson, chief of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division. “The state Legislature has approved $23 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for improvements on Belle Isle to be under construction by the end of 2024, and the department is considering many projects, including $2 million earmarked for the boathouse.”

Due to the boathouse’s lack of storage space for rowing shells or suitable indoor space for events and classes, the club’s programming needs haven’t been met for some time. To help address some of their immediate needs, the DNR approved a plan for the Friends of Detroit Rowing to erect a temporary rowing storage facility on the site.

Next steps, public review

With limited funds available, the DNR faces the difficult decision of investing in a portion of the necessary structural repairs without a long-term solution or removing the building and repurposing the space.

The DNR encourages the public to visit the project webpage and learn about each option and then submit comments or questions via the webpage by Dec. 31. All comments will be reviewed, and a summary of answers to common questions will be shared on the page by Jan 5. A link to the project webpage can be found at Michigan.gov/BelleIsle.

The DNR expects to decide on the future of the boathouse in early 2024.

For more information, contact Tom Bissett, urban district supervisor for the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, at 313-264-6368 or BissettT@Michigan.gov.

An accompanying photo is available below for download.