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Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation Gifts $100 Million to the Rebirth of LaSalle Park & Trails

After years of trying to figure out what the future of LaSalle Park beholds, we finally have our answer. The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation has announced that it is investing $200 million into parks and trails in Southeast Michigan and Western New York, and LaSalle Park will be a significant beneficiary of the funding.

Using $100 million of the funding, a signature park will be created at LaSalle Park (along with connecting trails), which is exactly what the waterfront parcel deserves. Over the years, there have been incremental strides made that have helped to highlight the potential of the park, including The BarkYard, a skate plaza, and significant investments into Centennial Pool and the neighboring splash pad, but the overall state of the park has languished for decades. Now, the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation has come to the rescue. For that reason, LaSalle Park will be renamed Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park.

“We are proud and honored to celebrate Ralph’s birthday today with a lasting gift that matches in scale the passion and pride he had for his hometown of Detroit and ‘adopted’ hometown of Buffalo, where he founded and owned the Buffalo Bills,” said Mary Wilson, widow of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. and life trustee, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. “Ralph was committed to exercise, staying active and enjoying life. It would make Ralph so happy to see people of all ages enjoying these enhanced parks and trails for years to come.”

“Parks and trails have an incredible impact on communities – inviting usage from all ages, neighborhoods and people – promoting inclusiveness and breaking down barriers. They not only connect people to each other, but to other destinations and assets across a region,” said Jeffrey Littmann, life trustee and board chair, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. “These projects also take collaboration from all levels of community to be realized. It’s this teamwork and hard work that Ralph valued so much.”

Earmarked for Buffalo:

  • $50 million investment in LaSalle Park – $40 million in capital redevelopment and $10 million for park maintenance
  • $50 million investment in trails and greenways in Western New York – $40 million to connect current gaps and $10 million to maintain existing trails

“Through the years, there have been many organizations and funders who’ve worked hard to develop these parks, trails and waterfronts in both Southeast Michigan and Western New York. We’re honored to join with them in the continuation and acceleration of that work,” said David Egner, president and CEO, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. “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. Each park also serves as an anchor to a larger, more robust and burgeoning regional greenway system, connecting to other parks and neighborhoods, encouraging access for all.”

The $100 million will be broken down as follows:

  • $40 million for the LaSalle Park transformation
  • $10 million to support the broader efforts for long-term sustainability (endownment)
  • $50 million in trails in Western New York ($40 million will be allocated toward yet-to-be determined projects that close physical gaps in each region’s trail systems and $10 million will be designated toward helping operate and maintain the trails for decades to come)

“The commitment that the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation is making to the city of Detroit and Southeast Michigan is profound and marks another step forward for the region,” Gov. Rick Snyder said. “Our state is known for incredible natural resources and this generous investment will have a lasting and positive impact for all those who call Southeast Michigan home or want to spend the weekend experiencing its reinvention.”

“Ralph Wilson is an iconic part of the history of Buffalo and Western New York, and we are fortunate that his spirit lives on through generous philanthropic efforts,” said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. “When I’m in Buffalo, a bike ride through LaSalle Park is part of my regular routine. This park has amazing potential. LaSalle Park is a place where families from around the world gather to enjoy the waterfront, play sports, and enjoy camaraderie. In celebrating the legacy of Ralph Wilson, we are grateful to the Foundation’s commitment towards LaSalle Park and our parks and trail systems within the region.”

Similar to Buffalo’s LaSalle Park, Detroit’s West Riverfront Park will be renamed Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park, and will be recreated to positively reflect Wilson’s legacy.

“With this incredibly generous gift, the Wilson Foundation will help us create a spectacular riverfront park and recreational opportunity that will be enjoyed by Detroiters for the next 100 years,” said Mayor Mike Duggan. “Equally important is making sure that residents in our neighborhoods have easier access to their city’s riverfront through projects like the Joe Louis Greenway. The Wilson Foundation was an early supporter of this effort and we are thrilled that the other half of the foundation’s gift will go toward filling gaps in regional trails connecting the city and region.”

Detroit appears to be ahead of Buffalo when it comes to planning for this park, and has even identified a a New York-based landscape architecture firm – Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) – to design the park. The firm, which designed the award-winning Brooklyn Bridge Park, was chosen after an international design competition was held.

“This generous gift honoring the legacy of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. is recognition of the Conservancy’s success in transforming the riverfront into a gathering place for all. This work is possible through the involvement of our community and our funders. The creation of this new park will be one of the most significant public space projects undertaken in our city’s history, and it will provide tremendous benefits to youth and families in our community—and throughout the region—for generations to come,” said Matt Cullen, Chairman, Detroit RiverFront Conservancy.

Earlier this summer, a planning grant was issued by the Foundation for LaSalle Park (see Imagine LaSalle) – Buffalo’s largest waterfront park. The community engagement process was led by the City of Buffalo and the University at Buffalo Regional Institute.

“Ralph Wilson was one of our city’s greatest champions. His vision illuminated our landscape and his humanity enriched our community. Today Mr. Wilson’s commitment to the City of Buffalo lives on through the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. We are extremely grateful for this generous donation that will enhance the quality of life for generations of Buffalo residents as they enjoy expanded, inclusive access to our city’s waterfront and everything that Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park has to offer,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown.

“Parks and trails have an amazing, unparalleled power to rejuvenate communities, and I thank the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation for their extraordinary gift in further enhancing these parks and public spaces,” said New York State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey.

In advance of the $200 million gift, the Foundation hired James (J.J.) Tighe as director of parks and trails in 2017. This newest funding gift is compounded by a previous $25 million gift from the Foundation, dedicated to parks and trails across both regions. These generous donations, and investments into the two communities, coincide with Wilson’s desire to strengthen four key areas of Buffalo and Detroit: children and youth; young adults and working class families; caregivers; and livable communities.

For more information on Ralph C. Wilson, Jr.’s legacy and the investment, visit

A few renderings of Detroit’s West Riverfront Park from Curbed Detroit:

Written by queenseyes


Newell Nussbaumer is 'queenseyes' - Eyes of the Queen City and Founder of Buffalo Rising. Co-founder Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts. Co-founder Powder Keg Festival that built the world's largest ice maze (Guinness Book of World Records). Instigator behind Emerald Beach at the Erie Basin Marina. Co-created Flurrious! winter festival. Co-creator of Rusty Chain Beer. Instigator behind Saturday Artisan Market (SAM) at Canalside, Buffalo Porchfest, and Paint vs. Paint. Founder of The Peddler retro and vintage market on Elmwood. Instigator behind Liberty Hound @ Canalside. Throws The Witches Ball at Statler City, the Hertel Alley Street Art Festival, and The Flutterby Festival.

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