Writer: Kim Kisner

Meagan Elliott Takes the Reins as President & CEO of the Belle Isle Conservancy 

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PHOTO CREDIT: RYAN SOUTHEN PHOTOGRAPHY (IG: @rsouthen)
Published On July 11, 2024

Meagan Elliott began her tenure as president and CEO of the Belle Isle Conservancy on July 1, following a decade with the city of Detroit, culminating in serving as chief parks planner and deputy CFO overseeing development and grants. 

Elliott spearheaded the Joe Louis Greenway Framework Plan and played a pivotal role as the city lead in a $350 million campaign for a unified greenway encompassing the Joe Louis Greenway and the Detroit Riverfront.  

The Belle Isle Conservancy is dedicated to safeguarding the natural environment, preserving historic structures, and enhancing Belle Isle as a public park for the enjoyment of all, now and in the future. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, 5.6 million people visited the park last year. 

SBN Detroit interviewed Elliott about the conservancy’s approach to sustainability and what impacts her work will have on Southeast Michigan businesses and residents.  

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MEAGAN ELLIOT, PRESIDENT AND CEO, BELLE ISLE CONSERVANCY

Q: What part will sustainability play in your new role? 

A: Sustainability is fundamental to everything we do, and I want to lift and advance it in new ways. The Belle Isle Conservancy has done and continues to do a lot of work toward this. One example is the Keep Belle Isle Beautiful campaign focused on reducing plastic waste on the island and in waterways. That initiative has taken off and now goes far beyond the cleanups themselves, focusing on environmental stewardship and informing educational programming that helps to drive our future leaders.  

Caring for our planet forms the foundation of all our endeavors and is a filter for how we approach all our work, whether it be in support of habitat restoration, capital projects on the island, or new types of programming moving forward. I’m eager to collaborate with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in this effort. 

Q: How does your background position you for this role?  

A: It’s in a couple of important ways. My tenure as chief parks planner was particularly formative, involving comprehensive work across all city green spaces, from neighborhood parks to a 30-mile greenway. 

When we consider Detroit’s park infrastructure, connectivity emerges as a fundamental concept. Historically, Belle Isle has been perceived as a separate entity and not easily accessible. Moreover, with one in four people in Detroit lacking access to a vehicle, they face challenges moving around the city, being able to access our amazing metro parks system, or getting Up North. Belle Isle is a treasure that rivals all of these spaces, and here it is right in our front yard. Connecting to a system of green space via the riverfront and the Joe Louis Greenway is essential.       

Connectedness extends beyond physical spaces to encompass the desires of residents and businesses surrounding Belle Isle as well. The Belle Isle Conservancy plays a crucial role as a steward and advocate, driving initiatives that reflect community wants and needs. 

Also, my background in sociology has prepared me to spend time listening to residents and how they want to utilize their island and to make sense of the patterns that emerge in engagement with a diversity of constituents.       

Finally, I’ve spent the last three years as deputy CFO brokering partnerships between private funders, philanthropic entities, and public partners and making initiatives happen by creating coalitions of folks. I want to put that same energy and investment behind Belle Isle. 

Q: You led the Joe Louis Greenway Framework Plan, and were the city lead in the $350 million campaign for a unified greenway for the Joe Louis Greenway and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. How will this impact your work going forward? 

A: I have an example. On my first day as president and CEO of the Belle Isle Conservancy, I was speaking at a press conference during which $20.7 million was received from the federal government for the continuing construction of the Joe Louis Greenway. This was a grant that the team worked on while I was still working for the City of Detroit. But I was there as the co-chair of the Joe Louis Greenway Partnership and was able to highlight the connection from the Joe Louis Greenway to the Iron Belle Trail, which ultimately will connect Belle Isle to Ironwood at the tip of the Upper Peninsula through a network of greenways. 

Many individuals have dedicated themselves to this work for a long time, and I’m committed to utilizing my platform and voice to continue to advance this work. 

Belle Isle is the epicenter of both this amazing network of green spaces and the Great Lakes. I can’t imagine a better geography for foregrounding environmental stewardship than on this island.  

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PHOTO CREDIT: RYAN SOUTHEN PHOTOGRAPHY (IG: @rsouthen)

Q: What impact do you think the Belle Isle Conservancy has on businesses in Southeast Michigan? 

A: I see the economic impact of public space as vast. It directly relates to employee decisions on where they choose to live and work.  

Belle Isle ranks as the second most visited park in the country after Niagara Falls. I believe our efforts here are directly linked to attracting new talent to businesses in Southeast Michigan and bolstering our economy.  

Q: In what way will you work with area businesses? 

A: The conservancy already does a lot of work with businesses on many fronts. 

One of the most immediately valuable impacts businesses have on Belle Isle is our corporate stewardship days. Businesses bring their teams to help clean up the park and connect with each other.  

We also have a significant number of partners in the corporate community who see the value of Belle Isle for the community and invest in projects to help support the park.       

We also have the opportunity to look at the vendors utilized on the island and how to create more inroads for Detroit-based businesses to play a role in the construction, management, concessionaire, and other vendor partnerships.  

There are endless opportunities to work together.   

Q: What challenges do you expect to encounter from a sustainability aspect? 

A: The challenge is always prioritization and how to choose projects and initiatives that make the best and biggest impact. As I get my feet wet, I will start determining our approach for that impact. 

So many Detroiters are passionate about sustainability. I’m excited to learn how residents, stakeholders, and businesses want to prioritize the tasks at hand.   

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PHOTO CREDIT: RYAN SOUTHEN PHOTOGRAPHY (IG: @rsouthen)

Q: What are the areas you feel you will have the most impact when it comes to sustainability? 

A: I’m interested in understanding the canal system. I think there is a significant opportunity around our waterways.  

In 2023, 8,936 pounds of litter were removed from the canals and shores of Belle Isle. Since 2018, the conservancy’s sustainability efforts have led to 36,785 pounds of litter being removed from the Belle Isle waterways.  

Beyond this, in terms of the park’s sustainability and usage, I think there are opportunities to help people understand how to better utilize Belle Isle. People come to the island focused on getting to one spot. For example, if that spot is the aquarium or the beach, they drive in, park, spend time there, and leave the island. But there is so much to experience here! I think we can find ways to collectively build new habits of use, understand the spaces around the island differently, and use them accordingly. 

 

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