The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, a non-profit group formed as a public/private partnership in 2003 responsible for developing the riverfront area from the Ambassador Bridge to the east of the Belle Isle Bridge, including maintaining the Dequindre Cut Greenway, today stands as a beacon of hope for what the city is rapidly becoming.
There is the downtown RiverWalk that is family friendly, offers public parks with green spaces and serves as a destination for anyone who is looking for recreation along the river.
Every year, the RiverFront’s signature event, Riverdays, draws thousands of visitors to downtown Detroit on a weekend for a festival of the arts with live entertainment along the river.
Faye Nelson, Detroit RiverFront Conservancy president and CEO and the driving force behind the new initiatives, says the development of the riverfront is critical to Detroit’s growth.
“Communities throughout this nation have used riverfronts as a catalyst for economic development and social benefits for their respective areas, such as Baltimore, Chicago, Portland,Milwaukee and San Antonio,” Nelson said.
“Developed waterfronts have provided tremendous benefits, an example of which can be seen from the attraction of visitors/tourists who spend money at local businesses, providing a public space for the use of the community, boosting property values. Creating a more walkable environment, enhancing environmental and health benefits such as encouraging walking or biking instead of using a car, creating a more natural landscape that not only beautifies but also helps our environment by cleaning the air and managing urban storm water runoff.”
Nelson said developed riverfronts serve as conduits for tremendous benefits that foster a more sustainable community, socially, economically and environmentally, all of which are of vital important as Detroit plans for its future.
Whenever talk of public/private partnership comes up for discussion, there is strong reservation in some quarters as to what the public benefits really are from such projects.
In the case of the Detroit Riverfront, Nelson says the project is an example of a meaningful and efficiently and properly run public/private partnership. The riverfront benefits everyone and is not restrictive.
“The riverfront development project is a tangible example of how a public and private sector community, working together, can chart the course of its future,” said Nelson. “Because of three main entities, the City of Detroit, General Motors and The Kresge Foundation, the non-profit Detroit RiverFront Conservancy was established and we now have over 3 miles of public accessible developed riverfront with pavilions, plazas, green space, and parks, connected by way of a riverwalk that the community is enjoying. All while we work towards a vision of five-and-a-half miles of developed waterfront, from bridge to bridge and beyond.”
She continued, “Because of these three entities, the Conservancy has been able to leverage the initial investment made by these three partners to raise additional dollars from corporations (Compuware leading the way), foundations (including Community Foundation, Kellogg, Ford, Skillman, Hudson Webber, and McGregor, to name a few), and all levels of the public sector (county, state, federal), all of which have been applied towards the development and sustainability of this project.”
She said while more money needs to be raised and more development needs to occur, because of these three entities, the Conservancy’s activities have been able to serve as an example of how public/private partnerships can be successful in sustaining and revitalizing communities.
“It breathes an air of confidence that we can better ourselves, that we can collaborate through a public/private partnership,” Nelson said. “ It embodies the spirit of our community and substantiates the fact that we can work together for the good of the region. People are surprised that we can do this.”
With a new administration in city hall and a charter commission under way looking at how to restructure local government, Nelson said she sees Detroit evolving into a better place.
But that will depend on an aggressive and earnest examination of the city’s future use of land, a focus on the need for efficient and effective transportation, and the transformation of the public school system, she said.
Nelson repeatedly credits her success in running the Conservancy to a board that understands the critical need of meeting the demands of a growing and challenging city like Detroit.
In the next five years she expects Detroit to become more attractive for people to live and visit. That optimism is certainly not far-fetched, especially at a time when there is talk of a new basketball stadium in the horizon should the Detroit Pistons finally call Detroit home proper under a potential new owner like Mike Ilitch.
Cheryl Lynn Pope said the riverfront is helping with the remaking of the city’s image.
“It is a great family destination,” Pope said. “It is a beautiful sight for the residents of Detroit. My daughter especially likes to play in the floor waterfalls. I recommend the Riverfront as an attraction for residents of other cities. Come out and see what Detroit has to offer.”
Another Detroiter, Donald Philips, said that he too likes what is happening on the riverfront.
“It helps promote the city,” Philips said adding that the “Detroit river is gold to me.”
Christianne Sims, a youth leader and an independent consultant said, “I’m glad to see that Detroit is finally taking advantage of our waterfront. I think there are many opportunities for entrepreneurs and vendors to have a stronger presence there. It is very diverse. When you walk along the riverfront you see people from many different backgrounds.”
Sims would like to see more programming for teenagers who visit the waterfront as it becomes a “major non-motorized pathway along the river.”
Nelson said a lot of programming plans are under way.
“I’ve enjoyed many years of exciting activities at the riverfront and also many calming and reflective times,” said Ylet Noelle of her riverfront experience.