October 23, 2010; Source: Crain’s Detroit Business  |  Usually, to the extent that nonprofits merge at all, mergers are between two and only two organizations. On Belle Isle, a landscaped island park located in the Detroit River between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, four organizations this month met to form a single nonprofit conservancy, the Belle Isle Conservancy, focused on attracting more public and private support for Belle Isle. The four groups—Belle Isle Women's Committee, Friends of Belle Isle, Belle Isle Botanical Society and Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium—received assistance from the Cultural Alliance for Southeastern Michigan and the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

Belle Isle is owned by the City of Detroit. Like Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Belle Isle was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, though not all of his design was actually implemented. The challenge of maintaining, improving, and protecting an urban open space often gets skipped over by environmental organizations focused on larger, non-urban open spaces. The merger of these four organizations and their commitment to preserving the island park would make Olmsted proud.

Mergers always carry transaction costs. In this case, the four groups have come together for an all-volunteer organization, but the new conservancy will still have a $500,000 operating budget to cover a variety of activities, including, for example, ridding the island of invasive plant species. It appears that the Kresge Foundation, based in suburban Detroit, has played a key role. In 2009, Kresge gave the four organizations $100,000 to benchmark other park conservancies and in 2010 another $100,000 for a Belle Isle visitors survey conducted by Project for Public Spaces. According to a senior staff person at Kresge, there is no pending application or commitment for a specific Kresge-funded follow-up project, but she told Crain’s Detroit Business that “we’ve kept the door open for future conversation.”

Inner-city park conservancies play valuable roles all around the nation, as the Belle Isle groups undoubtedly learned in their benchmarking effort. Belle Isle is a wonderful asset that hopefully the new merged organization will be able to maintain and revive as an open-space jewel in this troubled metropolitan area.—Rick Cohen