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Parks, Trails in Michigan and New York Get a $200M Boost

A rendering of the design intended for Detroit's West Riverfront Park. The park will get nearly all of the funds for the proposed redevelopment, thanks to an award from the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation.  Image courtesy of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

Parks and trails in Michigan and New York are receiving $200 million from a foundation funded by the former owner of the Buffalo Bills.

The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation announced today that the greater Detroit area (Wilson’s hometown) and the Buffalo area (where he founded the Bills) will each get $100 million. In each region, $40 million goes to creating a “signature park” and $10 million into an endowment to support the park’s future. Also in each region, $40 million will be allocated toward projects that expand each region’s trail network, with $10 million additionally set aside for operations.

In Detroit, the West Riverfront Park, which was already slated for (re)development, will receive the money, which is 80 percent of what the park needs to be completed, Curbed Detroit reports. The park’s plans call for a “cove with a beach,” for wading in summer and skating in winter, a “whimsical” playground, an area for outdoor concerts, and a sport house, Next City reported in May. It will be a big change for the park, which Next City called “pretty desolate” and which wasn’t even open to the public until 2014 after the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy purchased the parcel of land.

In honor of the donation, the park will be renamed Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park.

The trail money will go toward completing parts of the Iron Belle Trail and build connections across Southeast Michigan, ultimately building at least 250 miles of trails, Curbed Detroit says.

“This is a transformative …, incredible investment in the future of the riverfront,” Mark Wallace, CEO of the Riverfront Conservancy, told the Detroit News. The park could be open by 2022.

In Buffalo, LaSalle Park, which has “languished for decades,” according to Buffalo Rising, will be renovated and also renamed Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park. Plans for LaSalle Park are not as far along as West Riverfront. The city of Buffalo is just going through the community engagement processalso funded by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation — now, Buffalo Rising says.

It’s the biggest single grant in Western New York’s history, according to the philanthropy community there, the Buffalo News reports.

Officials at the foundation hope that construction for the park renovation can begin in 2020, after a 12- to 18-month design process.

Trails under consideration for expansion in the Buffalo area include the Shoreline Trail in Erie and Niagara counties, Erie Cattaraugus Rail Trail in Erie and Cattaraugus counties and Genesee Valley Greenway Trail in the Genesee River Valley, the Buffalo News says.

It’s not the foundation’s first investment in parks and trails by any stretch. In September, the foundation also gave Buffalo $6.5 million to complete a trail network from Buffalo to Youngstown.

“Ralph was committed to exercising, staying active and enjoying life,” said Mary Wilson, widow of Ralph Wilson, in a statement. “It would make Ralph so happy to see people of all ages enjoying these enhanced parks and trails for years to come.”

The foundation started in 2015 with, as the Detroit News says, “no stationery, one employee, and a core of four friends of Wilson as life trustees.” Its mission is to spend down all of its $1.2 billion by Jan. 8, 2035. But because of the growing economy, the Detroit News reports, the foundation is worth more than when it first opened its doors.

Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.

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Tags: parksdetroitbuffalo