Ralph C, Wilson Jr., the late founder and owner of the Buffalo Bills and the American Football League, which merged with the NFL in 1970, was a noted fitness enthusiast and nature lover who loved his hometown, both the one where he was born, Detroit, and his adopted hometown of Buffalo.
Today, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation decided to honor its namesake and his commitment to the community by donating $100 million to develop LaSalle Park on Buffalo's Lower West Side and to expand its regional trail system. The donation coincides with what would have been Wilson's 100th birthday. The foundation will also be donating an additional $100 million to redesign a riverfront park and link trails in Southeast Michigan. The gifts are intended to honor the two communities Wilson cared about most.
"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, Ralph Wilson's widow and a lifetime trustee of the 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."
The foundation, which believes that improving the areas around communities also impacts the lives of its residents, actively contributes to developing sustainable communities by investing in parks, trails and green design, as well as, nonprofit support, innovation and economic development that drives regional growth, modernization and equality.
"If you look at both regions and their great progress, it's been very impressive," said David O. Egner, the foundation's CEO. "But the one thing parks and trails do that economic development alone can't connect people. It's our hope that by investing in trails and creating a signature park, we can truly make this accessible for every ZIP code, regardless of socioeconomic conditions and race."
The idea of donating $100 million to both regions was proposed by Mary Wilson, who thought it was important to honor Wilson’s birthday with a substantial contribution. Both parks are projected to be renamed Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park.
According to Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, the donation "will enhance the quality of life for generations of Buffalo residents." The grant is the largest ever given at one time in Western New York. In 2016, billionaire bond trader Jeffrey Gundlach, who was a native of Amherst, donated $42.5 million to expand the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. A year later, he added a further $10 million. And in 2015, Delaware North Chairman Jeremy M. Jacobs gave $30 million to the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, increasing his total contributions to the school to more than $50 million.
Wilson, who passed away in March 2014, intended to have the proceeds from the sale of the Buffalo Bills go to starting a charity organization. The foundation anticipates spending close to $2 billion in both communities in the next 17 years. With today’s announcement, the institution has already dedicated $220.9 million for plans in Western New York and $221.2 million for endeavors in Southeastern Michigan.
The Wilson Foundation hopes additional funding for the parks will come from states, municipalities, organizations, businesses and other charities. Last month, the organization gave $6.5 million to finish a trail network from downtown Buffalo to Youngstown along the Niagara River Greenway. The donation helped complete the longest part of the project, a 7.4-mile trail from North Tonawanda to Niagara Falls through the Town of Wheatfield.
The LaSalle Park project, named "Imagine LaSalle," was developed last summer when a community focus group visited several parks around the country, including Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, Maggie Daley Park in Chicago and Washington Park in Cincinnati, to come up with ideas. Also, roughly 1,200 people filled out surveys and kids from the Belle Center took pictures and wrote essays on the park.
"The overall goal is to move forward with a broad conceptual design for the park and work collaboratively with public and private partners to realize that design," Tighe said. "We are also keenly aware that foundations don't build parks; communities build parks."
The design process will take between 12 and 18 months with construction at LaSalle Park beginning as early as 2020, Egner said. The park’s transformation will rehabilitate an area that was used as a dumping ground until the 1920s. Formerly known as Centennial Park, it was inaugurated in 1932 after the city razed, seeded and redesigned the site. The park was rechristened La Salle Park for René-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle, who was the first European explorer to arrive in Buffalo.
The foundation hopes that the park will become a regional attraction and bring people together. It expects to develop 250 miles of trails in Western New York and Southeast Michigan, as well as expand the Shoreline Trail in Erie and Niagara counties, the Erie Cattaraugus Rail Trail in Erie and Cattaraugus counties and the Genesee Valley Greenway Trail in the Genesee River Valley, over the next decade.
"That is enough trails to ride my bike between Detroit and Buffalo," Egner said.