Crain's Detroit Business, May 2008
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May 5 2008

Linda Gillum, Cynthia Ford and Sarah Earley don snappyGena Conti hats at the Benefactor Party for the Belle Isle Legacy Luncheon.
Photo credit: John F. Martin
A tip of the hat to the Belle Isle Women's Committee
By Julie Yolles

It was tax day when 115 women plus a few good men got together to drink, eat, shop for hats and strategize over an important charitable deduction.

The scene was the Benefactor Party, a pre-glow of sorts to the upcoming Belle Isle Legacy Luncheon May 21 at the Belle Isle Casino. The fourth annual event is organized by the Belle Isle Women's Committee, and guests are invited to help “Polish the Jewel” by donning their snazziest chapeaus in solidarity with the revitalization of Belle Isle.

Since his wife, Cynthia, hosted the Benefactor Party at their home, Edsel Ford II came to show his support. Since Tony Earley's wife, Sarah, is the founder, president and catalyst of the Belle Isle Women's Committee, he came to show his support.

“The third floor of our house has become the Belle Isle north office,” Earley said with a laugh. He is chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, a Legacy Luncheon corporate sponsor.

“This is a full-time job for Sarah,” Earley said of his wife's all-volunteer effort and the all-volunteer group she founded in December 2004 with 90 other civic-minded women. “She is totally dedicated to raising the money to restore Belle Isle to the glory it really deserves. I enjoy watching how successful it's become.”

So successful that the Belle Isle Women's Committee has raised $1.2 million. This month's luncheon is expected to generate an additional $300,000. The committee already has allocated $800,000 to the renovation of Sunset Pointe, the island's western tip, including demolishing and rebuilding a new restroom. The committee's next project is the Dairy Barn.

And to think it all started with a term paper.

To earn her associate's degree in landscape design from Oakland Community College, Sarah chose to write her final paper on Belle Isle and its designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park.

“Belle Isle was in a serious state of neglect and decay — a poor little stepchild who didn't get any money from the city,” said Sarah, who calls Caribou Coffee in Birmingham her external office. “They were putting millions of dollars into the RiverFront Conservancy, but nothing into the island, and I thought, "Why not?' “

So Sarah formulated a mission: to preserve, renovate and restore Belle Isle, one project at a time. She patterned her fundraisers after a successful “hat luncheon” that started in New York City almost 25 years ago. This month there are four hat-themed luncheons in the Detroit area. But you can't really have a luncheon without the proper chapeau, so Sarah invited Wyandotte-based hat designer Gena Conti to the Benefactor Party to sell, well, hats. Conti donated 15 percent of the night's proceeds to the committee.

“Belle Isle is our jewel and I think that hats are like a crown of jewels,” Conti said.Hats off to Sarah.

While mingling over cocktails, guests reminisced about the good ol' days on Belle Isle and the significance of the Belle Isle Women's Committee. Here's what they had to say:

Cynthia Ford, Benefactor Party host: “Sarah figured out that it was the right time to take control and make it happen. She's really made Belle Isle a rejuvenated jewel in the city of Detroit. Kudos to her.”

Ford was the first person at the party to sign up to be a life member of the Belle Isle Women's Committee.

Vivian Rogers Pickard, director of corporate relations, General Motors orp.: “Between my relationship with Sarah and knowing how important Belle Isle is to the community, it was an easy sell to get involved.”

Pickard was the first-year co-chair of the Belle Isle Legacy Luncheon. GM is a corporate sponsor.

Faye Alexander Nelson, president and CEO, Detroit RiverFront Conservancy: “I commend Sarah for her leadership and her vision and for all of what she's done to bring back Belle Isle to its glory.”

Nelson's family spent its weekends on Belle Isle.

Yolles: What are your memories of Belle Isle?

Linda Gillum, chair, Belle Isle Legacy Luncheon, adjunct faculty, iversity of Michigan Medical School, department of psychiatry: “I'm a native Detroiter who went to Belle Isle every weekend. These are women (on the committee) who don't have a lot of time, but who devote the time that they do have to see our community prosper. The Belle Isle Women's Committee is made up of all age groups, spanning the demographics in the right way.”

Debbie Dingell, co-chair, Belle Isle Legacy Luncheon; vice chair, General Motors Foundation, executive director of public affairs and community relations, General Motors Corp.: “The river is what connects all of us. It pulls us all together as a region. My father raced droplanes on Belle Isle.”

Yolles: How does it feel to be one of only 11 guys at this chicks' event?

Jim Nicholson, corporate sponsor, Belle Isle Legacy Luncheon; CEO, PVS Chemicals Inc.: “I thought, "What am I doing here?' I had an early clue that I shouldn't be there. I also thought very seriously about what hat to wear, and decided none. I was very impressed with the energy of the group. As a Detroit-based company, we're thrilled to support their mission.”

Designer Gena Conti has been burning the midnight oil since February creating couture hats in her Wyandotte workroom for the races — Dubai World Cup, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Royal Ascot and Melbourne Cup — and for upcoming hat luncheon charity events.


Her handmade hats range from $165 to $1,200.
“I am a custom milliner,” said the 16-year veteran. “There's no reason why I could not make a $5,000 hat.”

Fair enough. Any inside tips for preventing hat head?

“Why would you even think of taking your hat off?” Conti said. “Your hat is part of your entire, complete ensemble. You might as well remove your blouse. How do you avoid runs in your hosiery if you take your shoes off and dance on the dance floor?”
















Polish the Jewel -- Belle Isle Legacy Luncheon
To benefit: Belle Isle Women's Committee
Chair: Linda Gillum
Co-chairs: Linda Forte, Comerica Bank, presenting sponsor; Diana Jones, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, corporate sponsor.
When: 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m., May 21.
Where: Belle Isle Casino
Specs: Silent auction, lunch, keynote speaker Sara Cedar Miller, Central Park Conservancy, tours of Belle Isle by chauffeured coach from 1:30 to 3 p.m., gourmet strawberries and tea in the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory.
Cost: $125-$1,000.
RSVP: (248) 433-3560, www.biwcinc.org

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