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Belle Isle Boathouse

  • Belle Isle Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The park's listing does not include the boathouse as a contributing resource. Based on the age, architecture and social/cultural affiliations of the building, it may be possible to designate the building as a historic resource; however, the designation would only provide access to limited additional funding opportunities.

  • The DNR included a photo gallery specific to the areas of structural concern on the project page. There are photos available online and in public forums that capture the beauty of the building. The discussion surrounding areas of structural concern is pertinent to the question presented to the public. 

  • “Mothballing” has not been identified as an option because it would ultimately be more expensive than immediate rehabilitation. Leaving the situation unattended will likely lead to further damage, significantly increasing the cost of repairs later.

  • Founded in 1839, the Detroit Boat Club – the entity that built the boathouse in 1902 – is recognized as the second oldest rowing club in the U.S. The club vacated the site in 1996 and is no longer affiliated with the structure.

    In 1996, the Friends of Detroit Rowing was to operate their programming out of the boathouse under a lease agreement with the City of Detroit. In recent years, the building did not adequately accommodate the club’s needs. The building was deemed unsafe for use in August 2022. More recently, the club developed a plan on an adjacent site to develop a suitable rowing facility to meet the needs. Even prior to the boathouse ceiling falling, the building's rowing storage was not adequate for their boats, which were stored outside.

    The Detroit Boat Club Crew, now supported by the Friends of Detroit Rowing, has had a long and successful history on the Detroit River and has been based out of many different boat clubs over the years.

  • Decades of neglected repairs have taken their toll, and the building is deteriorating faster than we can fix it. While efforts have been made to stabilize the structure, structural deterioration has been outpacing the ability for repairs for some time. The building continues to deteriorate at a faster rate than can be fixed. Additionally, many of the structural components of concern are significantly closer to failure (i.e. roof, porches and columns) than when the two building assessment studies took place in both 2019 and 2022. 

    A total of $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding was allocated for removal or investment in stabilization for the boathouse. The funding would only cover a fraction of the needed investment.  The ARPA funds must be encumbered by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

  • It's possible that the DNR could partner with the private sector to rehabilitate the boathouse; however, to date no viable parties have come forward. Ultimately, the building would need to include a significant public component that would benefit park users and be consistent with the mission of Belle Isle Park. 

  • Several opportunities have been explored to partner with the nonprofit sector to rehabilitation the building; however, no viable funding sources have been identified to date. Priorities for nonprofit funding on the island have historically focused on projects that will have the most benefit to park users. Due to the high cost of rehabilitation and the private use of the boathouse, it has not aligned well with the mission of many nonprofit organizations.  

  • Securing grant funding for a project of this magnitude would be extremely difficult. It would also be contingent upon identifying a future public use for the building and matching funds. At this time, the scale of need is beyond any known public recreation funding sources. 

  • If the boathouse is demolished, the $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding would help provide stabilization and naturalization efforts on the site. Ideas for future use include a welcome center and/or community waterfront recreation amenities. Any future development would require public and stakeholder input. The Friends of Detroit Rowing have developed several concepts for a new facility that would better suit their needs and incorporate community water-based recreational use. 

  • Prior to the DNR assuming management of Belle Isle Park, the City of Detroit in 1996 entered into a lease with the Friends of Detroit Rowing to utilize the boathouse. When the state assumed management of the park in 2014, the DNR honored the Friends of Detroit Rowing lease. The lease stipulated that the friends group secure and/or raise funds to repair and maintain the building. To understand the safety concerns and the extent of investment required for the boathouse, the DNR has provided much of the funding for the two building assessments. Given the enormity of the financial investment needed on the island, the DNR has prioritized investment in structures open to the public and those that support state park operations. Capital investment has improved many other Belle Isle historic public facilities, including the James Scott Memorial Fountain, Belle Isle Casino, Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory and Belle Isle Aquarium.

  • The state of disrepair of the boathouse requires a decision be made regarding its future. Without a major investment, the building is unsafe in its current condition and liable to have additional structural failure. There are two significant challenges to rehabilitation. First, the excessive overall cost to stabilize the building and bring it to code. Second, the ability to recover the invested revenue is unclear. Rental revenue has been brought forward; however, it may not be a sufficient revenue stream because the Belle Isle Casino is a rental venue that already exists on the island. To date, no viable interested private or nonprofit sector parties have come forward to assist with the rehabilitation.

  • If rehabilitated with public dollars, the boathouse must be utilized for the public benefit. No funding source or suitable sustainable future use has been identified to date.  

  • A hazardous material assessment was completed in 2022. Hazardous materials, including lead-based paint and asbestos, were documented throughout the building. Abatement of hazardous materials would be required for any future rehabilitation contract.

  • The abatement of hazardous materials, including lead-based paint and asbestos, would be part of any demolition contract.  

  • As part of the SmithGroup (2019) and MacMillan/WTA studies (2022), licensed professional service and construction consultants worked together to generate estimates. The assessments detailed estimates with an explanation of how the costs were generated. It’s important to note that continued degradation and increased construction costs (due to inflation) would be much higher.

    When a project scope is determined, a professional service consultant is contracted to prepare bid documents detailing work required. The work would then be advertised for competitive bid by qualified contractors.

  • Rehabilitation of the boathouse presents significant financial challenges due to the extent of the structural damage, the location along the Detroit River and the presence of hazardous materials. Additionally, the inherently high cost of historic rehabilitation is further increased by inflation and rising labor costs. As noted in the background information on the project page, the City of Detroit commissioned a study of the building in 2006 and the estimate then was already nearing $26 million. 

  • Mothballing – or structural stabilization – costs are projected in the MacMillan/WTA studies (2022). At today’s pricing, engineering and construction is estimated at more than $5 million. This would only be an option if the end goal is for complete rehabilitation of the building.  

  • If the boathouse were to be demolished, the DNR would work with stakeholders, local community groups and the public to determine the optimal future use of the site. At that time, development costs, potential funding sources and operation/maintenance costs would be established.   

  • It is possible that some architectural components could be salvaged as appropriate.  

  • Under the terms of the Belle Isle Park lease agreement, the DNR is responsible for Belle Isle Park facilities, not the City of Detroit. The magnitude of the funding needed would not be feasible with current resources. 

  • It’s yet to be determined. The DNR is responsible for management and operation of Belle Isle Park overall. The property surrounding the boathouse (i.e., island, docks, parking lot) is currently leased by the Friends of Detroit Rowing. It has not been decided if the building footprint would continue to be part of this leased property or not.  

  • At the end of 2023, the DNR provided information on the project webpage and encouraged the public to learn about each option and then submit comments or questions via the webpage by Dec. 31, 2023. A summary of answers to common questions and of the comments received has been posted here. 

  • To date, no economic impact studies have been completed and there are no plans to undertake one at this time. This could be part of a future development proposal to ensure viability.

  • The DNR will make the final decision on the future of the boathouse; a decision is anticipated in spring 2024. 

  • We have not received proposals for viable options to rehabilitate the historic structure to benefit the public and Detroit community and align with the mission of a public park. A viable proposal would provide for rehabilitation in line with the historic cultural and recreational goals of the park. Rehabilitation will require a very significant financial investment, and without the financial resources to comprehensively address the structural issues of the building and site in a timely manner, the building is a threat to public health and safety. 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 for public use. 

  • The DNR is now accepting letters of intent from interested parties who can outline viable proposals for potential rehabilitation. Proposals should incorporate significant public recreation elements and align with the park's mission and purpose.

    • Applicants who submit a letter of intent and are selected by the DNR will be eligible to submit a formal proposal.
    • The deadline to submit letters of intent is 3 p.m. Friday, March 29, 2024.
    • Invited formal proposals will be due at 3 p.m. Wednesday, July 31, 2024.