West Riverfront Park rending

This undated artist rendering provided by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) shows a proposed play garden for West Riverfront Park in Detroit. (MVVA via AP)

Wilson Foundation Helping Remake Parks In Detroit, Buffalo

October 17, 2018 - 12:05 pm

By COREY WILLIAMS, Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) - The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation is helping remake waterfronts and improving recreational trail systems in two former Rust Belt cities that meant so much to the late former owner of pro football's Buffalo Bills.

The Detroit-based philanthropy on Wednesday announced investments of $50 million each for West Riverfront Park in Detroit and LaSalle Park in Buffalo, New York. Each is being renamed Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park.

Another $50 million each will go to support regional trails in southeastern Michigan and western New York.

Wednesday's announcement marks what would have been Wilson's 100th birthday. Wilson died in 2014 at age 95 at his Grosse Pointe Shores home in suburban Detroit.

He was born in Columbus, Ohio, but his family moved to Detroit. Wilson took over his father's insurance business, and in 1959 he founded the Bills and helped establish the American Football League.

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

West Riverfront Park is 22 acres along the Detroit River. It's part of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy's plan to develop 5.5 miles of the riverfront.

The 77-acre LaSalle Park sits where the Niagara River meets Lake Erie. A planning grant from the Wilson Foundationsupported a community engagement process led by Buffalo city officials and the University at Buffalo Regional Institute to create a vision for the park.

"Foundations don't build parks. Communities build parks," said David Egner, the foundation's president and chief executive.

"The signature parks mirror each other in many ways, with both situated at the front door to each city and region along an urban waterfront and international border," Egner added. He said the foundation also wanted to fill in gaps in trails running through southeastern Michigan and western New York.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown calls Wilson one of the city's "greatest champions."

"His vision illuminated our landscape and his humanity enriched our community," Brown said.

Prior to Wednesday's announcement, the Wilson Foundation already had invested $25 million in parks and trails in the Buffalo area and southeastern Michigan.

The foundation focuses on projects to benefit children, young adults, working-class families, caregivers and livable communities.