Is Belle Isle a race track or park? Protest planned over Grand Prix mess

Belle Isle Conservancy. Photo by Steve Neavling.
Belle Isle Conservancy. Photo by Steve Neavling.

By Michael Betzold
Motor City Muckraker

For generations Belle Isle has been a refuge for weary Detroiters.

Now, every spring, concrete barricades and huge grandstands occupy the most popular and scenic west end of the park.

This Saturday, people upset by the huge impact on the island plan a “peaceful rally” to protest the Chevrolet Belle Isle Detroit Grand Prix – set to roar the first weekend of June.

Sandra Novacek, spokeswoman for the protest organizers, says Roger Penske’s race takes way too long to set up and tear down and isn’t being held to account for the damage it does to the island’s ecology and mission.

“The race has nothing to do with what the island is supposed to be,” Novacek says. “It’s led to the degradation of the island so that now people think it’s suitable for any kind of racing,” she adds, citing last year’s Red Bull race around Scott Fountain and occasional unofficial car meets that have cropped up in recent years. Though she acknowledges the Grand Prix has raised money that has been used for some island improvements, she says that should be done in a way that’s more compatible with the park.

Grand Prix setup at Belle Isle. Photo by Michael Betzold.
Grand Prix setup at Belle Isle. Photo by Michael Betzold.

This year, a slew of advertising banners line the track, sponsored by everyone from General Motors to MGM Grand to Shinola, making the island, which even the Grand Prix official website correctly calls, “The Jewel of Detroit,” look more like a corporate whore.

The protesters, who have organized as a Facebook group called “Belle Isle: Park or Racetrack?,”  plan to gather from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday along eastbound Jefferson at the turnoff to the MacArthur Bridge. They ‘ll provide signs under a general theme of “No Place for a Race” but invite others to bring their own.

The group’s ultimate goal is to end the race by the time the current contract expires after 2018, saying race organizers and city leaders should find someplace more suitable to hold it. (The race was held downtown from 1982 to 1988 and in various incarnations on Belle Isle from 1992 to 2001, in 2007 and 2008, and annually since 2012.)

In the meantime, the group seeks to shorten the race’s set-up time, which this year began in early April, and speed up its dismantling, which isn’t completed until late June or later. Novacek also wants to know if race organizers have ever done an environmental impact statement; she says repeated questions about that have never been answered.

The larger question the rally raises is why the city of Detroit treats its jewel – one of the very best urban parks in America—like an unscrupulous pawnbroker.

Belle Isle to become state park with $11 annual entry fee

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Michael Betzold

Michael Betzold is a former Free Press reporter and longtime area freelance journalist. He wrote Queen of Diamonds, a history of Tiger Stadium. He lives on Detroit’s east side.