The writer is a former Free Press reporter and a Deadline Detroit contributor. He is a member of Belle Isle Concern.
By Michael Betzold
Last year, state Department of Natural Resources parks chief Ron Olson told Detroit City Council that any new contract for the Belle Isle Grand Prix would undergo a public review process. But Olson has changed his tune. All this year he’s been insisting that the Penske organization hasn’t yet proposed a new contract.
In June, he told the Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee that a new multi-year contract, once offered, would undergo no transparent public review process but merely be “presented” at another meeting, where public input is limited to three minutes of comment per speaker.
Advisory committe members shouldn’t have authority to review a Grand Prix contract. At least three of the seven members have ties to Penske.
Chairperson Michele Hodges is paid nearly $200,000 as president of the Belle Isle Conservancy, whose budget is buttressed by an annual “Grand Prixmiere” benefit. Sommer Woods is VP of external relations for M1 Rail—whose board Roger Penske chairs—and her firm has had contracts with the Prix. Bud Denker, president of Penske Corp., also gets a seat.
It’s no wonder that committee members, particularly Hodges, routinely speak glowingly of the wonderful “public-private partnership” with the Penske organization that is of such great benefit to Belle Isle. But in this partnership, it’s clear who calls the shot, and it isn’t the public.
Regular park users overwhelmingly oppose the race, DNR surveys show. And the DNR’s strategic management plan, if followed, surely would prohibit the event.
The DNR invoked the plan to nix a July 3 mass participation staging of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” on Belle Isle. But the much more disruptive Prix gets a pass.
How do the people who regularly go to Belle Isle benefit from the race?
Hodges says that Penske’s fundraiser keeps the aquarium open—but couldn’t we have a donor gala for the aquarium without the race? And as for other benefits to the island attributed to Penske, most have gone for paving his racetrack and for fixing up the casino, which serves as the race’s media headquarters.
Backers say the event generates millions of dollars for the city—but that’s been exposed as a wildly inflated, deliberately deceptive claim.
Equally misleading is the talk about how Detroit wins acclaim and prestige and attracts visitors simply because the Grand Prix telecast shows the world the beautiful Detroit skyline (along with big ads for the race sponsors). In fact, motor sports fans are a relatively tiny and declining portion of the TV audience, and there’s no solid proof the Prix broadcast brings visitors flocking here. Nor does the race on TV contribute at all to Detroiters’ quality of life.
But Belle Isle certainly does. People who live here rely on regular access to the park to provide essential respite and recreation. It’s always been a common ground for family reunions and many community gatherings. Most cities would give a lot to have a public space like Belle Isle, a resource with incalculably large cultural and economic benefits. Great public parks not only help residents stay healthy, they are vital to the economic and social well-being of their cities.
But those in power in Detroit are willing to degrade Belle Isle to serve corporate agendas.
Meanwhile, while Penske’s race gets full support from the DNR and Hodges’ Conservancy, many of the island’s comfort stations are often closed or inoperable, the bath house at the beach has no working showers, some picnic shelters and tables are dilapidated and broken, road kill is left to rot, and trash isn’t always picked up. And on Memorial Day, the DNR closed vehicle access to the park at 4 p.m. in 94-degree heat because nearly a quarter of the island was barricaded for the coming weekend’s race. That was a stunningly graphic illustration of the DNR’s cockeyed priorities for Belle Isle.
Still City Property
It’s time for leaders who represent the city’s residents to bolster the public end of this bargain. The state holds the lease on Belle Isle, but it’s still city property, and the city, according to state law, must issue a permit for each year’s race (though it’s neglected to do so in recent years).
How about setting some much firmer conditions for that permission?
Olson and Hodges say they are listening to the public’s criticisms. But they hear Penske much louder and clearer.
Small increases in the DNR’s event fee for the race and requirements for a little bit shorter set-up time are not enough. The race’s footprint must not block public’s access. However it’s accomplished, the public trust demands that the entire park be open all year. Penske should be required to work around legitimate public uses, rather than the public working around the Grand Prix’s presence.
If that requires the city’s power brokers to find a better location for the race, so be it. Because, like it or not, the Grand Prix’s days on Belle Isle are numbered. Piet Oudolf’s garden is coming next year—a real tourist attraction, not a TV sportscast—and one that honors, rather than betrays, the stated conservation missions of the DNR and the Belle Isle Conservancy. Yet the garden will be hemmed in by the racetrack for weeks every spring unless the Grand Prix is moved.
Younger generations are about as interested in motor sports as in hula hoops. They do, however, enjoy riding bikes, walking in the woods, kayaking, picnicking, and seeing nature and living history—and can’t fathom why a “comeback city” would keep such a disruptive car race in its most beautiful public space.
Nor can I.