No history of the Metroparks would be complete without looking at the tensions that have arisen over the years between the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority and the city of Detroit and Wayne County. Those tensions had long been driven by the issue of where Metropark properties should be placed.
The first flare up of this debate happened shortly after the 1940 vote to authorize the establishment of the Metroparks. While a majority of Detroit and Wayne County voters approved the enabling legislation, the Wayne County Board of Supervisors brought suit against the Authority. The matter at hand was whether residents in one jurisdiction should be taxed for parks outside that jurisdiction. The Supervisors – worried that Detroit and Wayne County would pay the lion’s share of taxes, but not receive the benefits of having a large park nearby – questioned the Authority’s legal power to levy a quarter mill property tax. The courts, however, found in favor of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority.
The issue of placement came up again in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Leaders in Detroit and Wayne County questioned the basic premise that parks 25 to 50 miles from Downtown Detroit could serve the breadth of their residents. Over a quarter of Detroit’s population, they argued, did not have access to an automobile, effectively putting the Metroparks out of reach; others were unwilling to travel the distance to take advantage of the Metroparks’ offerings.
One possible answer to this problem was for the Authority to locate a park in the city of Detroit. But no parcel of available land within the city was large enough to be developed into a Metropark. Instead, Metroparks commissioners and staff brought forward a plan to renovate and take over operation of Belle Isle, a 1,000 acre island park that was then (as now) Detroit’s largest and most heavily used park facility.
This plan was well received by city leaders. In 1970, Detroit (in a public vote) approved the idea of leasing the park to the Authority. But the price tag for redevelopment was $39 million – equivalent to over $250 million today – and well beyond the Metroparks’ financial capacity to take on without increasing the system’s millage.
A proposition to increase the Metroparks property tax levy by a quarter mill was put before the voters of the entire region in 1972. This proposition was defeated.
In 1973, the Authority went back to the city of Detroit with another plan to lease the park and undertake a less ambitious redevelopment effort. The Metroparks would fund this plan by introducing vehicle entry fees across all Metroparks and by pushing back the timetable for parkland purchases in other parts of the region.
The city objected to this plan on the grounds that it meant giving away Detroit’s control of one of its jewels to a regional organization. The city proposed, instead, that the Authority grant money directly to Detroit for the operation of city parks or to build smaller parks within the city. The Metroparks rejected both of these suggestions as a violation of the legislation that enabled the creation of the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority: By definition, these smaller parks would not be regional in nature.
Michigan’s legislature held hearings that year to consider changing the Metroparks’ enabling legislation. In the end, no changes were made.
In the years since, the Metroparks have offered educational outreach programs to groups within the city through its interpretive program. In 1995, a 48-foot exhibit trailer, or Mobile Learning Center, was put on the road with the specific goal of reaching people within areas of the region who were less likely to be able to visit a park.
More recently, a new spirit of cooperation has arisen between the city of Detroit and the Huron-Clinton Metroparks.
In 2020 the Metroparks and The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy announced a multi-year, pilot partnership focused on widening access to new programs and recreation for city and suburban families, as well as leveraging the world-class parks, greenways and public spaces managed by the two organizations. Through this partnership, the Metroparks will establish a physical presence in Detroit and contribute $6 million over seven years to the Conservancy for expanded programs and operations at the future Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park on the West Riverfront.