Without question, Belle Isle is Detroit’s most precious jewel. It deservedly has a special place in the hearts of generations of Detroiters and Michiganders. Since February 2014, it’s been under the stewardship of the DNR, which each spring turns it into a racetrack for a billionaire.
Whether you think leasing Belle Isle to the state was a heist, a scam or its salvation, the island’s reputation has rebounded from harder times. It’s attracting more folks from outside Detroit than ever.
Under state auspices, the race each year has expanded in scope and length — to a ridiculous set-up and takedown time spanning most of the spring. During that time, access to the most popular and accessible part of the island is tightly controlled by Roger Penske’s private security force. That makes the state-imposed $11 entrance fee even harder for Detroiters to swallow — and keeps visitors from using popular areas of the park for family picnics, weddings and other gatherings in March, April and May.
The inherited contract between Penske and the city of Detroit expires after the 2018 race. But the DNR is poised to renew it for years to come.
The DNR has scheduled a “public review” of its proposed new five-year contract with Penske on Sept. 20 (next Wednesday) at 6 p.m. at the Nature Zoo on Belle Isle. Members of the public will get two minutes apiece for comment; those who can’t attend can email comments by Sept. 22 to Scott Pratt of the DNR (firstname.lastname@example.org).
But a “review” is not genuine engagement with park users. Rather, it’s a cynical charade, since park users already have made it absolutely clear they want the race to be banished. In both an online survey this spring (PDF) and in two “public listening sessions” March 29, more than 1,600 island patrons told the DNR that getting rid of the race was by far the most important priority for Belle Isle.
The DNR responded by burying these embarrassing results deep on its website, while parks chief Ron Olson said he was “listening to the public” by saying a new contract would cut Penske’s hegemony down to nine weeks — about what it used to be until the state took over, and still way longer than similar races in any other city. Meanwhile, the state is installing permanent fixtures in the park — such as concrete anchors for pedestrian overpasses and racing stripes — that are only for the race. The DNR is turning the island into a racetrack.
In official answers to Mary Sheffield’s Detroit City Council subcommittee, Olson cited claims of Penske’s island improvements —including millions spent by MDOT on racetrack roadways and the paving of an 8.9-acre concrete paddock (which entailed felling memorial trees planted by SOSAD).
Even more preposterously, Olson rejected the idea of conducting any environmental impact study of the race and parroted the preposterous Penske claim that the race generates $47 million annually in “economic benefits to the Detroit area.” This figures each of the 100,000 race attendees — including those who come on Friday “free day” — spend roughly $470, enough to get their own private hotel room and order expensive meals. These “economic impact” numbers are the same balderdash concocted to justify public money for sports arenas—long proven to come out of the thin air in corporate fantasyland.
Also staunchly supporting the race is the Belle Isle Conservancy, which runs the reopened aquarium and conservancy and whose president, Michele Hodges, has much of her budget raised by the annual Grand Prixmiere fundraiser.
No wonder she touts this “public-private partnership” for Belle Isle. But there are better ways of tapping funding — e.g., foundation grants— that would do the job of “conserving” Belle Isle without prostituting it. I for one would lead a public campaign for the Conservancy if Hodges would reverse her stance on the Grand Prix.
Penske is looking more and more the villain — and nothing is more destructive to a businessman than bad PR. It would benefit his bottom line to build a permanent racetrack elsewhere — in a place that needs some real economic redevelopment. There are many more suitable places for the Grand Prix imaginable, starting with City Airport and the state fairgrounds and roaming all over the empty east side. Maybe a visionary city leader could help him find a place to hold his race.
If Penske quits Belle Isle, he’d be a hero, and we should erect a statue to him in the park—right next to James Scott, the gambler who gave Detroit money to build a fountain on Belle Isle as a tribute to him.
About the author: Longtime Detroit journalist and former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold rides his recumbent bike to Belle Isle most mornings but says he was booted from the park for 24 hours this May for protesting the Grand Prix.