How did a hotel on Belle Isle get into the news — and out again?

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As close readers of local newspapers know very well this week, the idea of private development on Belle Isle is a contentious topic. As in, mention it, and then stand back!

It’s because, time and again, people have floated plans to build private or quasi-private development on the island, ranging from a $41-million Detroit Equestrian Center and Marina proposed in the mid-1990s to a $30-million to $45-million maritime academy, dormitory, and restaurant submitted seven years ago, to a boutique hotel with several restaurants discussed just last year. Most of them faced public objections, prompted by worries over diminishing the natural beauty that draws the park’s many recreation-seekers. All failed miserably in the end, most of them due to outcry.

It’s against this backdrop that, on May 19, the Detroit Free Press published a piece by Rochelle Riley, and interview with Michele Hodges, the head of the Belle Isle Conservancy, a group that’s struggling to preserve the island park. Surprisingly, the idea of private development, including a hotel, appeared in the piece. Actually, it appeared prominently, in the first paragraph. (OK, it was in the title, too.) The comments section for the story lit up, as outraged supporters of the park decried the idea of a hotel, with some calling for Hodges’ head.

Still more surprising was an article that appeared two days later by Matt Helms (Riley was reportedly on vacation), in which the leaders of the Belle Isle Conservancy stressed that a hotel was not part of their plans.

Can you say “whiplash”? What happened here?

We spoke with Michele Hodges ourselves, and she assured us that she wasn’t the party doing the backpedaling. On the topic of hotels, she says it was Riley who brought the topic up. “It’s not as if we backtracked,” Hodges says. “It was never a focus. … It wasn’t the conservancy freely bringing up the concept as if it were a priority or as if it warranted any emphasis in the current planning process.”

“In any planning process,” Hodges says, “you need to have all the options on the table if you truly respect that planning process, so we certainly didn’t want to take anything off at that early stage. And that’s the only reason that a hotel, or anything of that nature, would be considered. But the likely outcome is not heavy commercial development on Belle Isle. It certainly isn’t something the conservancy is advocating for at this stage.”

In other words, when you pay a New York-based group hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a plan, you don’t tell them to stop talking when they say the word “hotel.” Neither does that mean you have to approve it.

In fact, Hodges opposes such ideas.

“That’s not something we’re pursuing,” she says. “We see [Belle Isle] as a sacred place for the public to go and recreate and celebrate, and to enjoy the outdoors and the architectural jewels around the island and the countries oldest operating aquarium.”


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