muckraker report

Birmingham developer offers plan to buy Belle Isle for $1 billion, secede from Michigan

Prominent Republicans in Michigan will gather soon to hear a plan for investors to buy Belle Isle from the city of Detroit for $1 billion and turn the island park into a semi-independent city-state of 35,000 people with its own laws, government and currency.

Never mind that the proposed libertarian experiment, supported by prominent free-enterprise supporters like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, retired Chrysler President Al Sperlich and Clark Durant, co-founder of Detroit’s Cornerstone Schools, likely will go nowhere.

The sale of Belle Isle requires the approval of Mayor Dave Bing and Detroit City Council and neither would give the proposal a serious look. It’s also very unlikely the island could secede from Michigan.

In fact, the plan smacks of antagonism and divisiveness at a time when the city is shedding vital services to avoid bankruptcy.

Many Detroiters already are distrustful of outsiders and couldn’t imagine selling their environmental treasure to anyone – especially wealthy investors bent on making a political statement.  The 982-acre park also has a long history of racial inclusion and serving as a free getaway from city life.

Behind the plan is Birmingham developer Rodney Lockwood Jr., who recently published a book on the subject and served as chairman of the Board of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

“Big changes take big ideas, power arising from noble intent, and leaders of great vision and courage,” Lockwood wrote. “It happened before with the birth of America. It can happen again.”

Lockwood envisions a “social laboratory for the western world” in 3o years.

“People soon came from all over the world to be part of this culture of unlimited opportunity,” Lockwood wrote. “Belle Isle became the ‘Midwest Tiger,’ rivaling Singapore as an economic miracle.  Although numbering only 35,000 citizens, it generated billions of dollars in desperately needed economic growth.”

Surprisingly, the plan has attracted some Detroit entrepreneurs, including Larry Mongo, owner of Cafe D’Mongo Speakeasy in Detroit

“Change requires us to think differently,” Mongo said. “Detroit has been changed by Cadillac, Woodward and Henry Ford in the past. Rod Lockwood’s vision and passion for Detroit and its citizens is the change we need for the future. I hope the people who decide will see the vision for what it is — finally real freedom and opportunity for us Detroiters, the chance of a lifetime to let us share in the American Dream. And we need it now.”

Blogger Steve Dibert writes that the plan is an elaborate ruse based on the fictional dystopia created by philosopher and writer Ayn Rand.

“What Lockwood and his boosters don’t come out and say is that they want to turn Belle Isle into is an Americanized version of the British tax havens of Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man, which are known to be havens for tax cheats and money launderers,” Dibert added.

Belle Isle is a sensitive topic. Late last year, Mayor Dave Bing and Gov. Rick Snyder reached a tentative agreement to lease the park to the state Department of Natural Resources for 30 years. City Council quickly rejected the plan, saying there was no guarantee that Belle Isle would be maintained, policed and properly funded.

Many Detroiters opposed the plan, saying the city should maintain control of one of its most treasured assets.

“This is just stupid,” Detroiter Alan Nash, who often visits Belle Isle, said Saturday. “What are they trying to prove – that they can flash their money and buy whatever they? Not going to happen.”

Got tips or suggestions? Contact Steve at sneavling@gmail.com.

Steve Neavling is an investigative journalist and former city hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Living on the city’s east side, Neavling explores corruption, civil liberties and the underbelly of an oft-misunderstood city.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.