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Outdoor Collaboration in Action: The Metroparks are Coming to Detroit

While the Detroit region experiences this gilded era of outdoor recreation expansion, certain projects stand out from the rest as especially newsworthy. The announcement of the collaboration between the Huron-Clinton Metroparks and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy represents one such ground-breaking development. Here's what you need to know.

In a world that's constantly bracing against a barrage of bad headlines, Detroit's outdoor recreation industry may represent the sole safe haven of consistent good news.

Even during the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, Michigan's public recreation spaces benefitted from a 30% increase in visitor traffic compared to 2019 figures. The outdoor recreation economy in Michigan grew an impressive 15.4% from 2020 to 2021, including the annual generation of $10.8 billion in value and 10,000 jobs across a wide range of occupations and skills. The Michigan DNR will receive $250 million in funding from the 2021 American Rescue Plan. The Gordie Howe International Bridge will directly connect Michigan's Iron Belle Trail to the Trans-Canada Trail. The Detroit Riverwalk has won back-to-back titles as the best riverwalk in the United States. New regional trail building initiatives, like the Border-to-Border Trail, Southwest Greenway, and the monumental Joe Louis Greenway, are being implemented in record timing.

In summary, the outdoor recreation industry in the Detroit region is absolutely crushing the development game with these major wins.

But wait, here's one more win for the good guys: for the first time in its 83 year history, the Huron-Clinton Metroparks system will have a presence within the City of Detroit.

Transformation of the West Riverfront |

Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park Development

Last month's press release announcing the Metroparks' arrival to the riverfront resulted from nearly 8 years of behind the scenes negotiation, collaboration, and careful urban recreation planning. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and Huron-Clinton Metroparks first started formally working side-by-side in 2015, launching limited programs aimed at educating thousands of Detroiters on regional wildlife and the outdoors. Five years later, the Metroparks and Riverfront Conservancy entered into a multi-year strategic partnership focused on widening access to new programs and recreation for city and suburban families. That November 2020 partnership initiative also included a commitment to leverage the world-class parks, greenways and public spaces maintained by both organizations.

During the entirety of its relational progression with the Metroparks, the Riverfront Conservancy pressed forward with several other major Detroit Riverfront development projects, including a transformative project originally titled "Reimagine West Riverfront Park." The goal of this project? To "to transform the 22-acre West Riverfront Park in downtown Detroit into one of the most dynamic public spaces in the world."

In 2018, the Riverfront Conservancy decided to rename the future park in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., whose namesake foundation provided a $50 million investment in the development of the park. With this influx of capital, the Riverfront Conservancy both expedited and expanded its planned development of the park. As currently projected, the transformative park will include dramatic design features like a "water garden"at the center of the park, an expanded and diverse shoreline habitat for avian and aquatic wildlife, rocky beaches, vegetated edges, some preserved sea wall, freshwater wetlands, plazas, indoor sport facilities, play structures, and a large event lawn called "The Hill."

The two-acre "water garden" is where the Metroparks fit into the development. On January 10th, 2023, the Metroparks and Riverfront Conservancy announced that the water garden will officially be named the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Water Garden, covering 2.5 acres and featuring walking paths, seating areas, educational signage, and open-air classrooms intended to engage visitors.

Why this Development Matters for Detroit

If there's one takeaway that stays with you after reading this article, we sincerely hope that it's this: the creation of fundamental change is almost impossible without industry-wide collaboration, cooperation, and consensus.

That quote from Simon Mainwaring could not be more representative of the paradigm-shift in our region's approach towards investment in the future of Detroit's outdoor spaces - especially at the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park development. Yes, we understand that the maintenance of a 2.5 acre water garden by a regional parks authority may not break across national headlines. But when you dig a little deeper into the larger of implications of this tangible development, the economic, cultural, and environmental ripple effects are staggering.

Let's start by acknowledging the monumental influence and resources that accompany the Metroparks. On an annual basis, the Metroparks attract roughly 7 million visitors to their 13 parks, including the generation of $92.4 million in direct visitor spending alone. Additionally, a recent study by the Trust for Public Land also noted that the Metroparks provide the following - staggering - economic, environmental, and health benefits for the communities that the parks system operates within:

  • $678 million per year in sales for sporting-goods stores.

  • $68 million raise in property value of nearby residences.

  • $62.3 million in recreation and health benefits to community residents.

  • $30.3 million in annual stormwater infiltration value.

  • $2.25 million in annual pollution control value.

  • $903,000 increase in annual property tax revenue.

  • $1,250 of average health savings per year for adults.

  • Support for over 3,100 jobs.

The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy also carries its weight in terms of spurring economic and community development along the banks of the Detroit River and beyond. During the first decade of the Riverfront Conversancy's riverwalk revitalization project, the project has generated more than $1 billion in public and private investment. As of the start of 2023, the

Riverfront Conservancy has invested more than $169 million in the revitalization of the Detroit Riverfront, which now attracts more than 3.5 million annual visitors.

This transformative power of the partnership of the Metroparks and Riverfront Conservancy goes beyond just maintaining and expanding a physical presence on the Detroit Riverfront. Since November of 2020, the collaboration between the Metroparks and the Riverfront Conservancy has also directly benefitted the lives of thousands of young Detroiters that otherwise may have never received access to life-changing outdoor educational resources. The two organizations have partnered on developing robust programming and joint outreach efforts, such as the "Swim in the D" program in which the Riverfront Conservancy, Metroparks, and the City of Detroit instructed 500 young Detroiters on how to swim.

Ultimately, this headline represents that the Detroit region's largest players - including certain of its most influential investors - are doubling down on the future of our outdoor recreation opportunities. In a world inundated with terrible news, these announcements are worth acknowledging, celebrating, and supporting with all of the resources at our disposal. We are ecstatic about the planned opening of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park in 2024, along with the economic, environmental, and social benefits that will support generations to come.

Stay tuned, Detroit - our best days spent outside are just over the horizon.


Interested in learning more about the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park project? Head over to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy's website to regularly read about Project and Construction Updates, as well as News Releases.


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