Four long-time park advocacy agencies—Friends of Belle Isle, Belle Isle Botanical Society, Belle Isle Women’s Committee, and the Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium—started a merger process in 2009 to form the Belle Isle Conservancy. Leaders of the four groups dissolved their organizations so that together, they can be a stronger force with resources to offer more environmental, educational, cultural, and recreational experiences for all to enjoy. Nationally, park conservancies, working with government, make it possible to renovate buildings, re-landscape large park areas and add programming elements that serve people of all ages, making parks more welcoming for everyone.
Belle Isle has long history of private support organizations, starting when the Friends of Belle Isle (FOBI) was founded in 1972. FOBI engaged supporters of Belle Isle through annual spring island clean-up and other volunteer projects for decades and played a leading role in environmental preservation and historic preservation.
Joining the effort in 1988, the Belle Isle Botanical Society (BIBS) began raising money for projects to improve the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. BIBS has donated more than $250,000 - in part from their decade old fundraiser, The Garden Party on Belle Isle - and thousands of volunteers hours to the Conservatory.
In 2004, the Belle Isle Women’s Committee (BIWC) was created and its first project was to upgrade Sunset Point. BIWC started holding its signature annual event, the Polish the Jewel Luncheon to raise funds for capital improvement projects. BIWC raised over $2.5 million for island restoration efforts including stabilizing the historic horse stables roof, saving the building from ruin, and adding a comfort station, landscaping, benches, grills, and picnic tables to Sunset Point.
One year later in 2005, the City of Detroit announced its intent to close the Belle Isle Aquarium due to lean economic times and major facility needs. In response, the Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium formed. The group secured a State Historic Preservation Grant to put a new roof on the Aquarium and raised $35,000 for Aquarium improvements.
2009: Leaders from each legacy organization recognized the opportunity to be stronger as one entity to support Belle Isle with advocacy, communciations, fundraising, volunteering, and programming. Stakeholder meetings were held with representatives from the four Belle Isle support organizations, City leadership, and Belle Isle stakeholders and supporters to learn what they want for the island park and to explore the possibility of forming a park conservancy.
Fall 2010: Merger plans began, facilitated by the Michigan Nonprofit Association, with four representatives from each of the four Belle Isle support organizations meeting almost weekly from October through December to discuss the structure and future programs of a park conservancy.
January 2011: The Boards of all four organizations voted to move forward in approving the merger plans and agreeing to the next steps in the merger process.
February to August 2011: Twelve representatives of the four organizations met and did their due diligence to form a new organizational board that is a mix of long-time supporters from the founding organizations and new people recruited to represent the community stakeholders and leverage support.
April 2011: Briefing Sessions for members of the four founding organizations were held. These members, who have contributed money and volunteered their time for decades, learned about the plan for the new park conservancy and had the opportunity to ask questions.
September and October 2011: Final approval of the merger took place and the legal work to finalize and approve the merger with the State of Michigan was completed.
November 2011: A public community meeting was held to announce the Belle Isle Conservancy, describe its goals and plans, and to invite the public to become supporters of Belle Isle by becoming members or volunteers.
January 2013: The Belle Isle Conservancy hired its first full-time employee, President Michele Hodges.
February 2014: The Conservancy started working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as the management entity for the park under a 30-year lease with the City of Detroit as part of the City’s financial restructuring.