Michele Hodges: President of the Belle Isle Conservancy

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Here in Detroit, one of the city’s most popular spots is Belle Isle, an island and public park in the Detroit River between Detroit and Ontario, Canada. The 982-acre island is a hub of recreation: bikers, dogs on walks, and joggers all year round. Visitors can rent boats and bikes, swim at the beach, tour the Belle Isle Aquarium, walk through greenhouses and botanical gardens, fish off the piers, and more. This week we interviewed the woman in charge of it all, Michele Hodges. She’s had a very successful career in public service and is currently serving as President of the Belle Isle Conservancy, the non-profit that oversees Belle Isle. If you’ve ever thought about working in public service, or are curious about what it takes to keep public spaces up and running, you’ll love this one. Check it out!

Can you tell me the story of your career so far? 
It’s always kind of fun thinking about a question like that because you don’t want your answer to be boring. I started at Michigan State, got an Urban Planning degree...it’s all so dull, right? It’s sort of like, if you have a broken arm or something, everybody’s like “How’d you do that?” And you want to be able to say you jumped out of a plane, right? You don’t want to say “Oh, I fell off my bike”.

Haha, true! Maybe it’s better to start with, “Why urban planning at Michigan State?”
It was an accidental thing. Because when you’re a kid--which you are when you enter college--you don’t know what those words mean. You sort of know what you like to do, though. I knew I really enjoyed communities and engagement. My family had a history of community service: my dad was an elected official, my parents were very involved in the parent-teacher activities in the schools and the church festivals and started a little league. I think the seeds of it were [planted] probably well before school started. And then it just transformed into something I really enjoy. What I like most about it is that you weave together your personal and professional worlds and your community service worlds as well. So, when my husband asks me, “Why’d you work so many hours this week?” I say, “That wasn’t work!” It was work and service.

After graduating, I entered the public sector first. All these steps that you’ll hear ultimately fit together really well because it’s important to have that background. I was working with Downtown Development Authorities, and learning about economic development and tax-based community financing. I was part of the founding committee of the Eight Mile Boulevard Association, which is a really remarkable experience for a young suburban girl who grew up two houses from Eight Mile all wide eyed. Really getting to know my community was a fantastic and certainly pivotal experience. 

I worked in two communities, the city of Eastpointe and the city of Southfield, which was great because they were very different from one another, and I really started building a whole region-wide network at that point. I started representing those communities on Chamber of Commerce boards, and that led to my migration to Chamber of Commerce staff. I joined the Detroit Regional Chamber, but on their Economic Development team, not necessarily what I call their ribbon cutting team, where you’re going out doing traditional Chamber of Commerce work. 

That enabled me to learn a lot about our region [of Southeast Michigan] and the 10 counties: how you make things happen and how you bring investment to the region. Then I joined the Troy Chamber of Commerce when we started building our family so that I could be a little more anchored and not travel as much. But I still wanted to have a meaningful professional opportunity. The Troy Chamber really provided that because they’re more corporate in their orientation, they’re more focused on business economic development and building the community, so I really enjoyed my time there. 

I really missed the Detroit fishbowl, the magic that has always been Detroit and continues to be Detroit. That’s when I had the honor of joining the Belle Isle Conservancy, about six years ago. 

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That’s amazing! And aren’t you the very first president of the Belle Isle Conservancy?
Yes! I have the honor of being the founding president of the Belle Isle Conservancy. Now with that said, there are many very important people that preceded me in will, grit, vision, and passion. Most significant is Sarah Earley, our founder, who loved Belle Isle before it was cool to love Belle Isle, and really committed herself to creating the Conservancy. She’s at the very top of that list, and certainly the leadership within our founding organizations – the Friends of Belle Isle, the Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium, the Belle Isle Botanical Society, and the Belle Isle Women’s Committee. Those folks really created the environment within which the Conservancy could take flight. 

Are those all different organizations still today? Or are they under the umbrella of the Belle Isle Conservancy? 
My hat is really off to all of those folks because they were true visionaries. They realized that by working together we’d be more effective at accomplishing the mission that has been set before us. They exist in our hearts and in our minds but officially the Conservancy is now the single organization leading on Belle Isle from a non-profit standpoint. Additionally, we have our state partners and our city partners. 

As president, what are your main responsibilities?
To protect, preserve, restore, and enhance everything that makes Belle Isle incredible. The Department of Natural Resources has day-to-day management responsibilities –  they’re making sure the park user experience is exceptional, the trash is taken care of, the lawns are mowed, the bathrooms are operational, the buildings are functioning, the infrastructure is in solid shape. They really have a very significant physical task that they have to accomplish and then find the resources necessary to make that happen. 

The City of Detroit continues to maintain ownership of the park but at arm’s-length, now. Our roles primarily center around the management of the aquarium. That costs about $500,000 a year just to keep it free and open to the public. We’ve helped lead many of the planning processes, we manage all of the volunteers that come to the island--which is a significant undertaking--and we do a lot of the event planning, primarily from a fundraising and engagement standpoint. And from a philanthropic standpoint. That’s the core of what we do: it does all fit well together and it manages to keep us quite busy!

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I’m sure it does! I read that Belle Isle needs about $300M to cover maintenance costs of the park, before you can start working on any new projects. Is that still the case?
Yes, we have about $300M+ worth of deferred capital improvements and the like. We’re about $58M toward that goal, with the Department of Natural Resources now having been with us 4 years, I believe it is. They have great acumen at finding outside sources that we wouldn’t qualify for if we didn’t have state park designation. 

The Department of Natural Resources has been very good about bringing those resources to the table, along with Law Enforcement resources, and the Michigan Department of Transportation which manages the roads. But that’s what we’re dealing with, just to get it to code, to that basic level of service that it should be at. We’re grateful to the community for helping us make such headway.

Is fundraising the largest aspect of your role?
Yes, that’s our primary responsibility. It’s an important one. Fortunately, the community is standing tall and we have wonderful relationships with the local foundation community, the corporate community, the individual community. We really honor them for supporting this very important mission. Because it’s our park, right? And it’s special, you can’t find Belle Isle anywhere else in the world. 

Somebody used an example the other day that really resonated with me. It would be as if somebody came in with an incredible art collection – one nobody in the world could compete with – and decided that they were going to open a museum to compete with the Detroit Institute of Arts. Well, you really can’t do that because Diego Rivera did not walk the halls of that new art collection, [the new collection doesn’t have] that history.

And then, it’s the people who know that heartbeat, as well. For example – our volunteers made a seahorse-led sleigh and put it on the grounds of the aquarium. It was cut out of wood, all of the details you could imagine, including a red nose on the lead seahorse. And now we’re talking about making sure we represent other religions. Maybe we’ll do an octopi to become a menorah, and others too. That’s the quality of our volunteers. 

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How large is the full-time team at the Conservancy?
Depending on how you count--because we have contractors and interns--we’re in the neighborhood of 13 to 15 bodies really making it happen. We now have professional staff at the aquarium which is really important, because we take our responsibility of caring for those animals in an appropriate way seriously. That was important to us. Since then, we’ve built out our volunteer engagement, events management, fund development and operations team. I was the first full-time staff, and that was in 2012-2013. 

Were you in charge of setting all the departments up?
Oh, yeah. It’s a responsibility, because you’re building an organization, putting processes in place that will hopefully last beyond your lifetime, and you have to know something about everything. HR, finance, legal, marketing and communications, and now aquariums! It’s very rewarding having that knowledge base and building it out, and not having to just be siloed in one of those areas but getting to be involved in all of them. It’s good life skills too, you know? When you’re at home and the fish tank explodes, or you have a legal issue, or you need to read a spreadsheet, or hold a family vote.

Did you pick up all of those skills in the jobs before this? Or was it on the job learning? 
To start, you definitely have to be a critical thinker, you have to love chaos, crazy, and complexity. But I think it’s a combination of both. The very nature of the organizations I’ve worked for required that. Chambers of Commerce are smaller so you get exposed to a lot, and nonprofits are too. You have to learn skills in your formal education, through mentors, and when you’re at lower levels of an organization on the job. You really never know what you’re going to encounter in a day, truly. It could be a flood. There’s all sorts of things. Lots of political complexity. Lots of community complexity. It’s all there.

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What has been your most meaningful accomplishment in this role so far?
Oh boy. I don’t know why the word “solutionary” came to mind. One of my teammates brought that to the table. Maybe that sounds soft and subjective but the fact that we have built a team of solutionaries means that we can build anything and scale anything. I include a lot of people in that category – not just our staff team, although they give blood, sweat, tears everyday. Our board, and the donors. The people that love Belle Isle. We wouldn’t be needed without them. We’re all solutionaries and we all play some role in making sure Belle Isle remains viable. That’s the most important accomplishment, because without that team marching forward, nothing else can happen. 

If you’re looking for something more hardcore, maybe [opening] the Aquarium. People love the Aquarium. It’s a very, very, very special place, not just in Detroit, but in the country and maybe even in the world. Where can you go to be under the sea and not get wet? 

How long do you plan on staying on this position?
It’s my life’s work, no question about it. Folks sit down and map out this very clear career path, I’m going to do this by this time and that by that time. I’ve never bought into that mindset. I think you have to be flexible, nimble, and alert enough to recognize an opportunity when you see it. It’s difficult to really predict your future. But Belle Isle feels like a part of me. There’s no real line between my personal and professional life, and the future’s so bright. I don’t know how you walk away from that. Maybe it’s like when your child goes off to college. You’ve been such a part of their life, building them and suddenly they’re gone. I don’t know that I want Belle Isle to go off to college. I want her to stay right here and be part of her life. 

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

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Thank you so much, Michele! Readers -- I hope you’ll come check out Belle Isle and see all the wonderful work Michele, her team, and their partners do. Come back next week for a little more time with Michele, where she’ll walk us through the steps behind successful fundraising. (Photos by Detroit Free Press, Oudolf Garden Detroit, and Paragon Apartments)