MONROE - A grass-roots effort to preserve 127 acres of parklike land in the heart of Monroe has gotten a major boost.
A $2.2 million grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund has been awarded to Monroe County for the purchase of property owned by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The county applied for the grant in September on behalf of the Friends of the Academy Preserve, a grass-roots organization that wants the property to become the "central park" for the city of Monroe.
"We are absolutely thrilled. This is just what we needed," said Rosie Assenmacher, a member of the nonprofit group, which has been collecting donations to pay for the matching grant.
The county stepped forward nearly three years ago to assist the organization in the purchase of the land and applied unsuccessfully for the same grant program in 2007.
Friends of the Academy Preserve went back to the board of commissioners in September. To strengthen its chances of getting the grant, the county agreed to loan about $421,000 of the $730,000 needed by the group in the application for the grant.
William Sisk, chairman of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners, said the board stepped up to fulfill the matching funds with the understanding that the members of Friends of the Academy Preserve will continue to gather contributions.
"I asked the board to back the balance of the grant request. We told the group that if they can't raise the money, the board will back the organization. But we will expect them to continue raising funds to match the local share of the grant," he said.
So far, Friends of the Academy Preserve has raised about $400,000 with a good portion of that amount coming from DTE Energy Foundation.
Mrs. Assenmacher said her organization will step up efforts to get contributions, concentrating on neighbors of the IHM property and corporations.
"Our goal is to raise another $400,000, and we will try to do that," Mrs. Assenmacher said. "Even though the economy is bad, we can do that."
Her group, which is working with the Monroe County Land Conservancy, envisions making the Academy Preserve into an area of education and recreation. Plans call for walking trails, bicycle paths, educational buildings, and farming areas.
After money is raised for the purchase of the land, the group will continue raising funds to develop the preserve. Of the $200,000 given by DTE Energy Foundation, $50,000 is intended to be used for development of the preserve.
The group wants to preserve natural areas, protect wildlife habitats, control invasive nonnative plant species, provide environmental and agricultural education, and establish areas where residents could grow produce.
Mr. Sisk said the property, which includes the three-acre wooded Sisters Island in the River Raisin, is worthy of being preserved in its natural habitat.
"As a kid, I can remember going back there and ice skating on the pond," he said. "It would be a wonderful thing if we could preserve that for future generations."
Robert Peven, assistant director of the county planning department, said grant requirements, which include environmental assessments, appraisals, and negotiations on the sale price, will take about two years, buying the group time to raise more private funds.
Danielle Conroyd, project director for the IHM Monroe campus long-range master plan, said the Academy Preserve would be appropriate with the community's support of sustainability and green space.
"It would fit into the vision of the campus," she said.
Much of the campus is park and open space that the sisters have allowed residents to use over the years for daily jogs.