Flint, MI—Design concepts for a new state park were presented to the public and Flint City Council this week, with planners asking for feedback and lease approval for a project that will span roughly 230 acres across the city of Flint.
Once complete, the park will be Michigan’s 104th state park and Genesee County’s first, and around 150 curious residents and stakeholders attended an open house event on Oct. 4, 2022 to share their feedback on the designs.
“I use Chevy Commons four or five times a week to walk or jog or exercise,” said Mott Park resident Jill Gernand, noting one of five local parks the state park design connects together with trailways. “So I just wanted to see—I’m excited about it—but just to see what it all entails.”
In total, the state park will encapsulate around 230 acres of land, including not only Chevy Commons, but also Gernand’s neighborhood park, the Mott Park Recreational Area, along with Happy Hollow Nature Area, Vietnam Veterans Park, and Riverbank Park.
“We are really focused on trying to be financially smart and efficient with how we improve Riverbank Park,” explained Scot Lautzenheiser, Vice President and Landscape Architecture Area Lead for Wade Trim during the open house. “We’re starting with looking at the park and saying, ‘Alright, what are the character defining components of the park itself, and how do we preserve those?”
Lautzenheiser has been part of the park’s designing process for years, and pointed to one of the visuals lining the event space.
“A good example of preservation is the Amphitheater Block,” he said, gesturing to a posterboard that depicted the existing stage and seating area in downtown Flint’s Riverbank Park.
Lautzenheiser said his firm wanted to complement that “character defining component” of the park in redesigning the area’s river access point. So, they created a similar step-like gradient down to the Flint River from a green space that abuts the water but is mostly concrete walls at present.
“We’re basically like saying, ‘Alright, we’re going to construct in here, but we’re preserving the pieces that people love,’” he said.
Aside from providing acres of recreational space for Flint residents and visitors, the park stands to be a boon to the local economy.
“When you fix up an asset—and it’s not just downtown, it just stretches out—it creates a better quality of life,” said Ron Olson, Chief of Parks and Recreation for Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “And it creates an atmosphere where if businesses want to locate in the community, they’ll say, ‘Well, people care about quality of life,’ and their employees will see that and say, ‘This is really a nice place to be.’”
Olson said that there are already local universities like Kettering and the University of Michigan-Flint located along to-be state park territory, but there are “plenty of other opportunities” for businesses to join them.
“We believe that this would help stir and stimulate economic development,” Olson said.
While the DNR will continue to collect feedback on its proposed designs until Oct. 25, 2022, in the meantime the department is seeking approval for leasing the land the new state park will occupy.
That 30-year lease agreement came before Flint City Council’s governmental operations committee on Oct. 5, at which time multiple DNR officials presented the park plans for the councilmembers’ consideration.
Alongside the promise to “program, design, construct, and operate” the park at the state’s “sole cost and expense,” the agreement includes the option for the city to renew the lease for two 30-year periods thereafter.
“I’m thrilled that it’s coming here to Flint because it just looks positive for this community, and it gives so much opportunity for our residents to enjoy the parks,” said Councilwoman Judy Preistley.
Priestley then asked if visitors to the state park in Flint will need a Recreation Passport, which is required for entry at some of Michigan’s other state parks.
“It was decided that we would not do that,” Olson responded, citing that there would be “so many” entrances and at similar urban state parks the DNR doesn’t require the designation.
Another reason they decided not to require it, Olson added, is because Flint’s park will be “fully sustainable in terms of operation.”
Olson said that the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has set aside $18 million in an endowment, to be held by the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, for the “perpetual care” of the park, pending lease and design approvals.
“This would be the only state park in and of itself that’s funded that way,” Olson said, adding that he viewed the funding structure as a “big step forward.”
“This is also a very good model for urban parks,” he said, citing that the city, county, nonprofit sector, and state are all working together. “This is really, you know, on the forefront of sustainability of an urban state park and creating a real nice venue around your big natural resource, the river.”
When reached for comment on the endowment, Ridgway White, Mott Foundation president and CEO, said: “We know that a healthy river, lined with parks and trails, will be a focal point that connects the community, increases recreational activity and contributes to a better quality of life for Flint residents. We hope this endowment grant will ensure that the park will be free, well-maintained and enjoyed by residents and visitors for years to come.”
But not all council members were immediately onboard.
Councilman Quincy Murphy expressed disappointment that the state park boundaries do not include St. John Memorial Park on the city’s north side.
That park is being developed by the St. John Historical Committee in response to the predominantly Black and immigrant neighborhood residents’ displacement due to urban renewal and the build out of Interstate-475 back in the 1960s and ’70s. The committee had been before council a week prior seeking American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding for the park’s development.
“What concerns me is even if you guys would have went up one block to Stewart Street you could have included one of the most historical parks that’s been created in the city of Flint that talks about the history of dislocated minority residents,” Murphy said.
DNR representatives said they would be willing to work with the council on the concern, but did not promise the memorial park would become part of the state park.
Instead, Olson offered that because the Mott Foundation endowment will support maintenance of the state park territory, city resources currently going to areas that will become part of the state park could be reallocated to the St. John Memorial Park project.
“Any resources that are being used in those areas now could be redeployed into other other spaces,” Olson said. “But yeah, we that’s why we’re here: to hear what you have to say. So I mean, that’s something we’ll have to work on to see what’s possible.”
Flint City Council voted 5-0-1 to pass the lease through to a vote at their Oct. 10, 2022 meeting via a master resolution.
Councilwoman Jerri Winfrey-Carter and Councilwoman Eva Worthing were absent, Council Vice President Allie Herkenroder was not present at the time of the vote, and Councilman Eric Mays abstained from voting.
Because the $30.2 million in funding for the park’s development is tied to Michigan’s American Rescue Plan Act monies in Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Building Michigan Together Plan, Olson said, the funding needs to be obligated before the end of 2024 and spent before the end of 2026.
He added that he anticipates a roughly two year construction time for the park’s design, and the next step after securing the lease will be to obtain design approvals and permits, so work will likely not begin until 2023.